What to beware of at auctions

Auctions are likely the best source for bargains in antiques. I could write a book on all the good buys I’ve made over the years, but they do have a dark side.  This dark side is especially dangerous because it involves not villainous auctioneers, but rather a lack of knowledge or control on the part of collectors.  There are a few dishonest auctioneers out there, but they are the exception and not the rule.  In forty years and more of collecting I’ve attended hundreds of auctions and observed scores of auctioneers.  In all that time I’ve only come across one auctioneer that I’d label dishonest.  Do keep on your toes in case you come in contact with that one in a thousand, but remember that the real danger at any auction is yourself.  Read on and you’ll find how to protect yourself from the dangers of auctions.

Beware the auctioneer:

The auctioneer's job is to get the highest price he/she can out of each item.  A smart collector will not allow the auctioneer to coax him into bidding higher.  Set a limit well in advance on how much you are willing to pay and when the limit is reached stop and let nothing move you.  Always, always set a limit.  No matter how rare an item, no matter how badly you may want it, setting a limit is still a must.  If you believe the value of the piece is $100 and you are willing to pay $1,000 set that as your limit.  It is okay to set a limit high when you want something badly, but set a limit and stick with it.  Also do not allow the auctioneer to influence your idea of value.  The auctioneer will make every antique and collectible sound as good as he possibly can, that's his job.  Base your estimate of value and your maximum bid on your own knowledge, not on his.  Be as steadfast as a mountain when it comes to your estimate of value and your top bid.

Let others pay high prices:

If the prices are too high, wait for another day to buy.  This is the time to just watch and let others pay the high prices.  Why spend $50 on an item today when it can be found for $35 later?  Always spend your money where it is worth the most.  It's okay to leave an auction empty-handed.  A day at an auction is hardly ever wasted, even if no purchases are made.  Often one will learn something about antiques and collectibles that will be of value later.  If the prices are too high don't buy, just sit back and learn.

Why do collectors overbid?

Many people overbid at auctions.  Something possesses them and they pay $150 for a butter churn they could easily find in an antique shop for $85.  What makes people do this?  There are several reasons: Some overbidders are family members bidding on family heirlooms.  These individuals are willing to pay far above the actual value for grandmother's old cookstove because it’s worth it to them.  In this case they aren’t actually overbidding because the piece is worth the price to them, but it will appear they are overbidding to others not in the know.  Many over bidders don't know the value of what they are bidding on and just bid what they are willing to pay. Some overbidders are bidding to keep someone they don't like from getting something.

Most overbidders simply get carried away in the heat of bidding.  They bid merrily along until they have paid $450 for a $250 teddy bear.  This auction fever infects nearly everyone at one time or another.  Many overbidders don't want to leave the auction empty-handed so they over-pay just to get something.  The reasons for overbidding are probably as numerous as overbidders.  The important point to remember is not to become one.

Don't rely on the other bidder’s knowledge

Rely on your own knowledge; don't base your idea of an item’s value on what the other guy is bidding.  This can be a dangerous practice.  If you don't agree, picture the following situation I observed when a Victorian berry bowl set, worth about $150 at the time, was sold at auction: The bidding started off at $25.  The price rose quickly and the crowd watched in amazement as it was hammered down for $350.  Murmurs of "Did I miss something?  Was it worth more than I thought?" were heard here and there in the crowd.

 What happened is that two bidders were basing their idea of what the set was worth on what the other was bidding.  As a result they kept going far above the actual value.  Each of them kept thinking that if the other bidder was still interested it must be worth even more.  As a result someone ended up paying twice what the set was worth.

Another mistake many bidders make in this area occurs when the other bidder is a dealer.  Many bidders will keep bidding on an item because a dealer is bidding on it.  The rationale is that if the dealer is willing to pay the price it must be worth more; the dealer is intending to make a profit after all.  This is certainly true much of the time, but it can be misleading.  The dealer may be buying for his own collection or may have a special buyer lined up for that particular piece.  And, I think we all know dealers who occasionally lose control themselves and pay far more than they should.

Never rely on the other bidders to determine the value of an antique.  Rely only on your own knowledge and the information found in current price guides.  Relying on others for a sense of value will often cost a lot of money.  The chances for error are too great.  In the end the only person you can count on is yourself.

Avoid the "I'm going to get it no matter what!" attitude:

Sometimes a collector will set his eyes on something and decide he will walk away with it no matter the cost.  This is the beginning of a dreadful mistake.  There are very few things a collector cannot live without. Going into an auction with an "I'm going to get it no matter what!" attitude will cost a lot of cash, especially if another collector has decided the same.It’s hard to enjoy any antique if the price paid was too much.  It may be a beautiful piece, but the price will haunt one forever.  If the antique in question is a family heirloom this will not be the case, but with anything else such an attitude is a mistake.  There are very few pieces that a collector can’t live without, so avoid the “I’m going to get it no matter what” mentality at all costs.

Keep in mind these few simple tips and the dangers of auctions will be greatly diminished.  Remember the auctioneer is rarely the problem.  The blame usually rests on the collector.  Lack of knowledge and lack of control are the real culprits and a little forethought can do much to limit such dangers.