Tips on buying at auction

Although auctions are one of the oldest and easiest ways to shop, there is a lot that can feel uncomfortable if you haven't participated in an auction before. Here are some great tips!

Read about the item's condition
Consider reading the auction house's information properly. It describes the object, its condition and origin and everything else that's of interest to the buyer. Damage or other defects are usually described in the catalogue. If the item's condition is not properly described, you should contact the auction house where the item is sold to be on the safe side. Often, the auction houses can also send detailed pictures of objects.

Double check the dimensions
It's also important to read what dimensions you want to buy. Otherwise, it can easily become a surprise if a painting turns out to be twice as big as you thought, or if the intended armchair turns out to be a high chair.

What is an estimate price?
Each item has a so-called starting price or starting bid. The starting price is normally based on the valuation made by the item before the auction and serves as a guide for the buyer, but can often be seen as a mixture of a valuation and a teaser price to get a bid started. The selling price can be significantly above or below the starting price. The starting price should be seen as a benchmark for what the auction house perceives as a right price, but let your own wallet determine the final price.

What is a reserve price?
The reserve price is a minimum price guarantee that the seller of the item can request. It is an agreement between the auction house and the seller that is not normally visible to the public. You can bid under the reserve price however if the bidding does not reach the reserve price then the item is not sold at the auction, but instead goes back to the seller. It is often called a withdrawal. A reserve price is often between 50-80% of the starting price, but may in some cases be completely absent.

What is a starting price?
The starting price is often a low bid, for example £100, which some auction houses state to encourage bidding. The starting price can be below the reserve price, but can sometimes also be equivalent to a reserve price.

What is a withdrawal?
A withdrawal is an auction term that is often used when an item is not sold because the bidding does not reach the reserve price, or if there are no bids at all.

Place a max bid
Often times, the bidding picks up speed the last minutes before the end of the auction. In order for you not to have to worry about missing the bidding, you can use the auction house's function for maximum bids. The auction house then bids on your behalf and places new bids for you up to your maximum, provided someone outbids you. Then, you also avoid the risk of outbidding yourself.

Watch the auction so that you don't miss the end time
Remember to note the end time for the bidding of the object that interests you. Here at Barnebys you can also add a search alert that notifies you with an email when an auction is nearing its end. Especially for online auctions, bidding usually intensifies in the last few hours, sometimes even everything happens during the very last minutes.

Don't miss the extra fees
Set a limit for yourself on what you think the item is worth and what you are willing to pay. Also, keep in mind that in many cases commission and fees are added to the final amount. Most houses clearly indicate what applies to anyone who wants to bid but it may be good to read through the auction house's special conditions.

Good luck bidding!

Pontus Silfverstolpe
Head of Content

Pontus Silfverstolpe is a co-founder of Barnebys. He has extensive experience from the art and auction industry, including head of Lilla Bukowskis, curator at Åmells Konsthandel, and programme leader for the TV show Antikdeckarna on TV4. In addition, Pontus writes regularly for various newspapers and is the author of the book Swedish Antik-Dealers. In his blog, Pontus monitors the art and auction market, gives trend reports, and comes up with solid tips.
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