How to get bidding for the first time

Timothy Barber
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I’m thinking of going to an auction to buy some antiques for my home, but haven’t been before. What should I expect?

IT’S not surprising that many of us are a little intimidated by the idea of an auction. If TV depictions are to be believed, the slightest scratch of your nose could see you having to fork out a fortune you don’t have for an antique or work of art you don’t want. Then there’s the rarefied atmosphere of experts and collectors, the frenzy of the auction itself, the volatility of prices – surely just heading to a shop or gallery would be easier?

Absolutely not, says antiques collector, author and hotelier Martin Miller. “A lot of people find it reassuring when they buy something at auction that there’s someone else willing to pay close to what they’re paying. When you see something in an antiques shop and you’re not that knowledgeable, who do you know if it’s well priced?”

If you’re intending to buy something at auction, you should do a little planning. Start by having a look at the auction house websites, and finding the lots that are coming up that you’d like to bid on. In the days before the auction, pieces will be on view at the auction house, with experts available to tell you more about them. They will also prepare “condition reports”, noting any defects or idiosyncrasies, which can be sent to you if you can’t visit ahead of time.

When you arrive at the auction, you’ll need to sign in with your details when you arrive, guaranteeing that you’ll pay for whatever you buy. You’ll be given a numbered paddle, which you can wave when you’re bidding, so there’s no need to worry about the nose scratching therefore. “It’s not in our interest to be selling things to people who don’t want them, and we’re concerned to make sure nothing goes wrong, so the paddles make it absolutely clear,” says Colin Sheaf, chairman of Bonhams UK and an auctioneer of 30 years’ standing.

Items will have a low estimate and high estimate price, and you can use that as a guide to how much you’re prepared to spend. Sheaf says that for an item estimated between £500-£800, you should set aside a budget of £1,000, but know your cut-off point. Bidding per item will normally last no longer than a couple of minutes, so don’t get carried away by the excitement if your target buy goes over your price range. Once the hammer’s gone and you’ve won, there’s no backing out. “There are certainly people who get carried away in the moment, and they wake up with a hangover,” says Sheaf.

After the auction, you can pay for the item by credit or debit card at the auction house cashier’s desk, though you’ll normally be given 48 hours to pay and pick up the object if you need it. Auction houses are flexible and will accommodate you if you need extra arrangements, for instance if the object is particularly large.

“There are always people around to help, so you don’t have to feel intimidated,” says Sheaf. “Really auctions are great fun.”