One Man’s Trash: 10 Tips for Estate Auctions

Antique auctions are a great way to find bargains on furniture, china, art, decorative items, and more!

Whether you love antiques, or you’re just looking to inexpensively furnish a home or apartment, skip the second-hand shops and discount stores. Some of your best bargains on everything from furniture to china to art and decorative items can be found at antique and estate auctions — and you’ll come away with better quality items.

If you’ve never been to one, auctions can be a bit intimidating. They move fast, and taking the plunge to get your bid in can be daunting. Here are some tips to help you get started.

1. Attend the preview. Every auction has a preview, typically the day before or the morning of the auction, when you can look through what will be up for sale. This is your opportunity to inspect pieces of furniture, look through box lots, and ask questions of the auction staff. You’ll feel more confident bidding if you know exactly what you’re bidding on.

2. Before the auction starts, decide how much you’re willing to pay for the items you’ve selected and then stick to it. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of the auction and continue bidding over your budget. You might also get discouraged from bidding when you see others aren’t. If you know how much an item is worth to you, you can avoid these pitfalls.

3. Arrive early to register. Avoid getting frazzled by getting to the auction early to register for your bidder’s number. The process isn’t hard, but if you’re still in line when the auction starts, you’re already off you’re footing.

4. Save money, bring cash. At many auctions, a buyer’s premium will be added onto everything you buy. This money goes to the auction house. While you will likely be able to pay with a credit card, cash or check, there is often a lower buyer’s premium if paying in cash.

5. The first bid is the hardest. Placing your first bid can cause some anxiety, but it’s as simple as putting your number in the air. Once you’ve broken the ice, your next bids will be easier. If you feel like the auctioneer isn’t seeing you, don’t be afraid to call out something like ‘yes’ or ‘over here.’

6. Jump into the bidding early. An auctioneer may start an item at a higher price, then lower the starting bid until someone makes the first bid. Lower starting bids often attract more bidders who otherwise weren’t interested. A better strategy can be to bid immediately, before the auctioneer lowers the price. If the starting bid is $100 and you’re willing to pay double that, jump in! You might scare off some other bidders.

7. Don’t let others discourage you. There are a lot of reasons why people don’t bid on items. Dealers who are buying items to resell have their own budgets and their own clientele in mind. Others might have fully furnished homes and are only interested in small decorative items. If you like an item, bid on it! Don’t watch someone else get a great deal on an item you wanted.

8. Don’t let others encourage you either. It’s easy to end up paying more than you wanted for an item because a flurry of bids made it seem desirable. While you can get great deals on items that should have sold for much more, you can also pay too much for items that really aren’t worth it. Just because a lot of people are bidding on something doesn’t make it valuable.

9. Still afraid to bid? Not everyone bids in person at the auction. Some people want to remain anonymous or can’t make it to the auction site. An auction staff person handles these bids, either with the bidder live on the phone during the auction or through something called a left bid. If you really can’t face live bidding, decide your ceiling on your items and leave these bids with the auctioneer. A staff member will bid for you up to your maximum.

10. Have fun! Auctions are lively and exciting and even the most seasoned bidders make mistakes and go home with impulse items or drag their heels on items they really wanted. Don’t get discouraged. Just think about what you can do better next time; there’s always another auction coming up.

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Lori Eschholz

Lori Eschholz owns and manages the Ohno! Cafe©, a restaurant in Portland, Maine, with her husband, Chris. Her previous careers included journalism and politics. She now moonlights for an antiques auction company and as a freelance writer.


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Ms' Barbara

If you are afraid of an auction try going to an Estate Sale. I’ve done both. I got burned at an auction when I went back to pick up my item they had given it to someone else, that person decided they wanted (could use) BOTH.

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