Part #5: Making Auction Bids Part #5: Making Auction Bids

Readers who have studied the first four installments of this series have gone through all the necessary preparations. You've inspected the items to be sold, you've jotted down any necessary notes. You're familiar with the terms of the sale, you've got a number, and you've found a seat with a good view of all the action.

Now it's time to let the bidding begin.

Don't be surprised that things start moving at a rapid clip right from the start. After all, an average auction may last four hours or so and consist of hundreds of lots. The auctioneer would like to move a lot every minute, so there's no time to waste.

Some auction houses start with what are known as "warm-up" lots that are inexpensive items that allow the room to settle down, while giving the auctioneer a chance to size up the crowd. At other houses, the good stuff starts coming right away. If you're attending your first auction, I suggest you watch for a few minutes before you start bidding, so you make sure you can understand the auctioneer's distinctive chant, and get a sense of how things proceed.

You'll see that most auctioneers start by asking for a bid that's beyond what anyone in the crowd is willing to offer. Let's say the item being offered is a nice old oil lamp with an unblemished glass chimney and a base with some decoration that is in good shape. My experience tells me that it will sell for anywhere between $50 to $100 -- depending on the crowd, the condition of the base, and the shape of the chimney. The auctioneer may start his or her chant: "What am I bid? Who'll go a hundred? Do I hear a hundred? Hundred. Hundred. Seventy five, then. Who'll go seventy five? Do I hear fifty?"

Obviously, you don't want to raise your hand to bid $100. My advice is when you're getting started, let someone else make the first bid. Remember that the auctioneer wants to move the merchandise, so the opener will quickly drop to $25 or even $10, and then hands will raise all over the room. Who wouldn't want an oil lamp with a clean base that is probably fifty or seventy five years old for $10?

The auctioneer will point to the first hand he sees: "I've got ten. Do I hear twenty?" Chances are he'll turn to another one of the hands that shot up. "Will you go twenty? Twenty it is. Do I hear thirty?"

In most auction houses, once the auctioneer identifies two people willing to bid on the same object, he will alternate the bidding between those two until one of them drops out. Let's say, on this hypothetical evening, the bidding goes back and forth between two bidders until one offers sixty, and the other declines to go seventy. Now the auctioneer will open the bidding up to the rest of the crowd. It goes something like this: "I've got sixty, do I hear seventy. Seventy, seventy. Going once, I'm going to sell this lamp for sixty dollars, you're all wrong here, it's worth much more, do I hear seventy?"

Are you interested in the lamp? If you are, now is the time you have to decide whether to raise your hand. Remember, assuming we're in a house with a 10% buyer's premium, if you bid $70 and prevail, you're actually going to pay $77, plus any sales tax.

You could bid $70. As long as you've looked at the lamp in question and you're sure it's in good shape, that's not a bad price. The only thing that can happen is the person who bid $60 will come back and top your $70 with an offer of $80. Or someone else might jump in. Then you will have to decide whether you'll go again and bid $90.

This is exactly where having a top price in your head is so important. It's easy to get too passionate about an item and spend too much. In twenty years of going to auctions, there are only a handful of things that I've only seen come across the block once. There are a lot of oil lamps out there, and if you get in to a war with one other person and end up paying $130, you've made a mistake.

If I want that lamp, I've got a cut off figure in my head. I work with the bid price, knowing that in New York State I'll pay a 10% premium and the applicable sales tax. Let's say my cut off price is a bid of $80. I offer $70, and if the bidding stopped there, I would have gotten a bargain. But, darn it, the other bidder offers $80. Do I go to $90?

The answer is, it depends. It depends on your budget. It depends on your resolve. Sometimes I'll go one or two bids over the limit I set in my head, but never more.

Here's a trick you can try in some auction houses. Let's go back to when the top bid was $60. The auctioneer is about to sell that lamp for $60. It appears no one else is going to jump into the bidding. You can try this: Yell out, "Will you take $65?" There's no official rule that an auctioneer can't go to smaller increments, and if you're willing to offer $65, I guarantee you the auctioneer will make more money selling it to you for $65, rather than the other person at $60.

Some auctioneers will not break their increment and will say no. But that's OK. You didn't do anything wrong. In fact, there's a hand signal, a horizontal chop, that means I'll bid half of what you're asking, but you need to know what hand signals, if any, a given auction house recognizes before you try anything that fancy. My advice is just stick with asking "Will you take $65?"

It's also possible that the person who bid $60 is a regular customer and the auctioneer won't want to take away that individual's chance to buy the lamp for $60 to sell it to you for a paltry $5 more. But then, there's a saying: "There are no friends at auction."

What if he takes your offer of $65? A good auctioneer will then offer the bidder who was at $60 the chance to go to up an equivalent five dollar increment to $70. That's only fair. If that happens, you can get in another bid at $75 and still be under your $80 cut off. Is this fun or what?

Unless you need to yell out a question, you'll generally bid by either raising your hand, raising your number card, or perhaps, if the auctioneer is awaiting your decision, by just nodding your head.

Once you start making purchases, you'll notice that the auctioneer will start looking your way more often. He or she may compliment you from time to time: "Good buy," or "You got a great deal on that piece." Pay no mind, and don't think the auctioneer is your friend. It's all about getting people to bid, and bid more.

If the auction house has good assistants, the next item comes up just after the previous one is "sold to the highest bidder."

Once the bidding ends, the item is marked with the bidder's number, and a sales receipt goes to the office. When you're ready to leave the auction, you pay for all the items you've purchased, get the receipts marked paid, and pick up your merchandise. At certain very informal auctions, you may be handed the items that you've purchased right after the bidding ends. Naturally, you're still expected to pay for the merchandise before you leave. And, remember, they recorded your name and address when you registered.

In the next installment we'll discuss some additional tricks you can try, and also give you some ideas about what to watch out for and what not to do. I'll also give you some tips about dealers, and why they're good, not bad to have bidding against you. I'll also give you some suggestions about how to protect yourself from tricks that some auction houses play, and cover some interesting special items such as left bids, telephone bids, and things that are "signed." In the meantime, get out and visit an auction! Just remember to have a price in your head before you raise your hand.

Reprinted with permission from the Sheffield School of Design

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