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Types of Auctions
Virtually every auction house and the companies that run auctions have their own personalities and cultures. The most prestigious auction houses appear, at first glance, to be hush-toned galleries rather than bustling marketplaces. Walking into Christie's at Rockefeller Center in New York City is like walking into a high-class yet rather bland-looking law firm. Everyone struts around exuding efficiency. Fit young men in well-tailored suits and preppy-looking women crisscross the lobby carrying catalogs, escorting rich collectors and hoping-to-be-rich consignors through the premises. Gold-framed portraits line the walls, a landscape perches on a nearby easel, and in the distance, in one of the many exhibition galleries, an assortment of American furniture and silver presents as fine a display as you would see in the museums of many cities. No one speaks above a whisper.
And yet, denim-clad customers still appear, a collector might occasionally lie on his back inspecting a chest-on-chest at a presale exhibition, and huge crowds can sometimes overflow into hallways and beyond during the actual auction.
Auction houses, by their very nature--that is, the kind of business they're in--have to be somewhat relaxed. After all, they are, in a way, stores.
In the United States, by far the most common type of auction is the English, or open outcry, auction. Here, the bidding starts at or below what the consignor is willing to sell an object for and increases as interested bidders vie to outbid one another. The bidding stops when the last person standing, so to speak, is the only person remaining who thinks the object is worth the price, whether it is $50,$100, $1,000, $1,000,000, or more. Bidders usually raise numbered paddles or cards to indicate their bids. At country auctions, bidders sometimes still shout out their bids for all to hear.
Dutch auctions are far less common today than in the past. Dutch auctions are the opposite of the English auction: instead of starting with the low bid and working up, the auctioneer starts the bidding at a high price and keeps dropping it until someone bites--that is, until someone in the audience is willing to pay. In a Dutch auction, the winner is the only actual bidder, which makes the process especially tricky. You absolutely have to know what you are willing to pay for an object in order to participate. There are no second chances as there are in ascending-price auctions.
The other types of auctions are rarely practiced today. There is the Japanese hand-sign auction, in which hand signals, similar to American Sign Language, but indicating prices not words or letters, are placed simultaneously. In the ancient Chinese handshake-auction bidders shake the hand of the auctioneer, indicating a bid by squeezing the auctioneer's fingers in such a way as to indicate the amount. The winner's name is subsequently called out by the auctioneer. By far my favorite type of exotic auction is the charming lighted-candle type. This is an old English way to conduct a sale in which the auctioneer lights a small candle just as the bidding begins. The bidding continues as the candle burns and the flame flickers. Whatever bid stands the moment the flame gutters out is the winning bid.
Auction House Types
At the high end of the auction house world are Christie's and Sotheby's, both of which are huge international corporations with branches in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago and salesrooms or offices in many other cities around the world, from places you would expect--Paris and London, for instance--to some you might not, such as Reykjavik, Tel Aviv, and Shanghai. Actually, this shouldn't necessarily be that surprising. In my travels, I've attended auctions in Vietnam, Zanzibar, and Tanzania, among other places, which just proves that where there is property to be sold, auctions will be found.
Christie's and Sotheby's hold regular, well-publicized sales of fine art and antiques, publish glossy catalogs, host lavish parties to which the city's elite are invited, and are covered in such glossy magazines as Art & Auction and Town & Country. Although they appear fancy compared to country auction houses these firms do not limit themselves to Louis this and Louis that and paintings by Picasso and Renoir. They sell fine collectibles of any type, including posters, the belongings of long-gone celebrities, and almost any other object of great value.
Serving a broader range of customers are smaller auction houses, mostly regional. Some are fairly well known outside their immediate area, like Butterfield & Butterfield (now called Butterfields), a house founded in San Francisco in 1865, which today has a salesroom in Los Angeles, as well, and Sloan's, which opened in Washington, D.C., in 1853 and expanded to Miami in 1997. Most cities and towns have their own similar homegrown auction houses--Skinner in Boston; Garth's in Ohio; Selkirk's, now known as Phillips-Selkirk's, in St. Louis; Dargate in Pittsburgh; and so on. These auction houses are smaller versions of the big leaguers, with a regular schedule of auctions and catalogs. Even smaller enterprises in smaller towns sell the estates of the local gentry; good-quality art, antiques, and furniture from the local population; and the belongings of local celebrities and institutions.
Regional auction houses are often the best places to begin to increase the quality of a collection. Here can be found the antique porcelain and silver, beautiful furniture, and fine jewelry, for example, that is too valuable for a simple country auction. These houses are honorable professionally run businesses, well respected in their communities. (See Appendix D.)
Country auctions, while far from Christie's and Sotheby's in style, are often fun and exciting--the last remaining bastions of bargains, sleepers, and deals in the auction world. The atmosphere is lively, and these houses never take themselves too seriously. If magazine and newspaper advertising can be believed, their numbers are growing quickly despite the Internet. Often held in barns, outside, or in the community room of a VFW hall, country auctions are the best place to get started, especially if the ambience and offerings of the sophisticated houses seem intimidating.
As far as production values go, however, don't expect too much. The seating at country auctions may consist of folding chairs, the presale exhibition may take place for just a few hours on the morning of the auction itself, and the party may be a man selling sodas out of a cooler and a bake sale to benefit the high school choir. The presale exhibit might be just stacks of lots around the periphery of the salesroom or an adjoining area. A country auction requires more preparation on the part of the auctiongoer, even including a tool kit of rulers, black lights, and flashlights, not to mention rags. (Cleanliness at these enterprises may be next to godliness, but not necessarily in a temporal way.) Numbered bid paddles, absentee bidding forms, and phone bidding--commonplace features of more upscale auctions--will probably not be available.
The merchandise at country auctions can be diverse. Works of art and furnishings may commingle with box lots of old clothes, a couple of used cars, and the type of belongings most people reserve for garage sales. Pickers--experts who scour the countryside buying antiques just to sell at auctions and to dealers or on the Internet--frequently haul in furniture and other objects by the truckload. The variety might be wide, but unlike more refined auctions, the contents will not be "deep." If you are looking for a number of silver tea services from which to choose, the country auction might disappoint. All of this is good, though. Country auctions appeal to a great number of buyers, and there's usually something for everyone. It is highly unlikely you will find an unknown painting by Monet, falsely attributed to someone else, for ten dollars, but then again, you never know.
Finding an Auction House
With the proliferation of auction houses across the country, it's hard to believe that not too long ago the average person's awareness of them was negligible. That's because for the most part the auction houses advertised only in trade publications read by collectors and dealers and others in the art world, not in consumer publications such as newspapers or general interest magazines. Today, however, it's a very different situation.
Finding an auction house in your area only takes a little work and is mostly common sense. First, of course, try the Yellow Pages for listings and ads. Then, turn to the Arts and Entertainment section of your local newspaper, especially on Thursdays or Fridays when there are often lists of weekend events. Advertisements and listings for antiques shows, gallery exhibits, and auctions often itemize, down to the last andiron, just what lots will be offered.
Another excellent source of information is the plethora of publications that specialize in art, antiques, and collectibles. Among the best of these publications are Maine Antiques Digest, Antique Trader, Antique Week, Antiques and the Arts Weekly (commonly called the Newtown Bee), and Art & Auction. These periodicals report the news and results of recent auctions across the country and list upcoming auctions as well.
A recent issue of the Antique Trader, for example, contained ads for dozens of auctions, including one at Meslers Auction House in Scottsdale, Arizona, that listed literally hundreds of the objects it was selling, from a signed lithograph by Marc Chagall to a late-nineteenth-century pump organ to a 1999 Grand Marquis with only 2,700 miles on it. Every weekend in nearly every town in the country, an auction is taking place.
The ads themselves, aside from being informative, can be a charming invitation to a new experience. An ad for an auction being held in the Great Plains Gallery in Lone Jack, Missouri, for example, declared that "statements made day of sale take precedence." At the 4-H Fairgrounds in Madison, Indiana, "food is available." An auction at the Champaign County Fairgrounds in Urbana, Ohio, offered "the early collection of the late Mrs. Marie Brown," and the auction on Clay Street in Niles, Michigan, included a "prize for best Halloween costume." Who could resist?
Another way to locate an auction house is to ask at local art galleries or antique stores. Since so many of the people who frequent auctions are dealers, they will be especially knowledgeable about local happenings. And don't discount word-of-mouth. Collectors and dealers you meet at an exhibit or an auction often know of another event just down the road and will gladly share their information.
Finding an auction house at which to buy traditional furniture, art, and decorative objects is one thing. Finding an auction that specializes in selling collectibles such as dolls or pinball machines can be a bit of a challenge.
I mention pinball machines because I know of a collector in a small town in southern California. Over the years, he built up a modest but fun collection of pinball machines by scanning the ads in the newspaper and by going to flea markets. As his collection grew, so too did his appreciation of their quirky history and their even quirkier interior workings. The more he learned, the more he wanted to become a more serious collector. He wanted to meet other collectors and attend auctions in search of rarer and better-quality machines, but the only auctions he knew of in his area sold farm animals and used cars. Eventually he found the information he needed in a publications guide in the local library. With a little effort on his part, he has a gleaming collection of pinball machines, his pride and joy.
Specialty auctions are actually quite common if you know where to look. A recent issue of Antique Week had advertisements for an auction of folk art in Buford, Georgia; Hummel figurines in Eaton, Ohio; vintage clothing in Springfield, Illinois; and dolls in Marshall, Michigan. That same week in the Maine Antiques Digest there were announcements for a gun auction in Findlay, Ohio; a sale of Native American arts and artifacts in Vancouver, British Columbia; and, in San Francisco, an auction of antique cars that included a rare 1941 Indian Sport Scout motorcycle with an estimated value of $35,000 to $45,000 and a 1958 Porsche 1600 Speedster for which they hoped to get between $40,000 and $60,000.
Once you find the auction houses in which you are interested, be sure to put your name on their mailing lists for upcoming sales so that you never again miss an opportunity to add to your collection. Some auction houses--like Christie's and Sotheby's, among others--accept subscribers (for a price) to their catalogs. Most major auction houses have Web sites as well, and these are always worth checking periodically.
On the Internet . . .
Types of Auctions
Just as each brick-and-mortar auction house has its own idiosyncrasies, so do Internet sites have their own peculiarities, rules, regulations, and personalities. Unlike brick-and-mortar auction houses, however, no matter where you are in the world, as long as you have a computer and a modem, you have seven-day-a-week, twenty-four-hour-a-day access to every one of the Internet sites. With hundreds--maybe thousands--of auction sites instantly available, and then possibly millions of auctions on a site in progress simultaneously, choosing where to log on, peek in, and bid is daunting.
Whether you are better off buying and selling on the less-visited sites or at one of the Big Three--eBay, Yahoo, and Amazon--is debatable. The specialized sites claim to meet the needs of their audience in a uniquely qualified way. There are fewer buyers and sellers, but the group overall is more targeted and motivated. On the other hand, eBay has thousands more auctions going on at any one time, with hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of potential buyers surfing its site around the clock. As a seller or buyer, you should visit both types of sites--the mega everything-to-everybody sites and the small, focused sites that concentrate in your area of interest. If you find yourself more comfortable on one type or another, you will know what is the best site for you.
Finding these and other online auctions can take some work--but not much. It makes sense to research these auctions in their home territory--the Net. You can go to one of the popular search engines, like Yahoo! or Google, and type in key words such as "online," "auction," and "list," and pull up the results. When I did that on Google, my search came up with 94,600 possibilities!
No matter the sites on which you ultimately choose to buy or sell, you should do a bit of research to make sure they are worth your while. As noted above, bigger doesn't necessarily mean better. You might find a narrower but better-quality choice of decorative objects more appealing. For instance, eBay sells everything from the authentic to the unproven, and as a company it makes no judgment. Caveat emptor is the rule at the big sites. However, some vertical sites, sites offering only one sort of object, do make promises--to sell only original objects, for example.
For serious collectors, such assurances can be an important time-saver as well. My friend Jeff is an avid collector of milk glass, an opaque white glass popular from about the 1830s through the 1980s. Recently, he could have found four auctions of milk glass objects on justglass.com or 2,806 auctions of milk glass on eBay. For a lawyer on a tight schedule, justglass.com is more convenient.