November 16, 2011

What am I Bid? Auctions and Old Houses

 I saw a post concerning auctions on another old house (and more) blog that I really like (, and got to thinking about how integral a role auctions have played in our old house.

First, let me say that I love auctions.  Ebay, country auctions, major auction houses, I love them all.  Why?  Not to sound like Charlie Sheen, but it's all about winning.  Jenny has often tried to convince me that competing for the privilege of paying money for something is not winning.  To quote Ned Flanders, that's stinkin' thinkin'. 

Auctions are an American institution.  They are a test of fortitude, strategy, patience, knowledge and luck.  Sadly, they are also often a showdown between my meager funds and the bottomless pockets of a dealer whose hedge fund manager client has authorized him to spend indiscriminately to make his country estate have that charmingly rustic feel of a Ralph Lauren store.  Like that redneck facing off on tractors against Wren McCormick, that is a battle that I am not going to win (Let me be clear that this is an allusion to the one-and-only "real" Footloose, starring Kevin Bacon and featuring the inimitable musical stylings of Mr. Kenny Loggins and Shalomar, and not to that 2011 upstart starring I don't care who and featuring the music of some country singers that I vaguely know.  But, I digress.  Now, back to our program.)  Still, if you are patient enough to follow the right auctions and wait for something to slip through the cracks, you can find some great stuff at very reasonable prices.  We have furnished and decorated our house that way - tables, chairs, corner cupboards, pewter cupboards, beds, pottery, artwork, fireplace accessories, bric-a-brac (mostly bric-a-brac), all from auctions.  I'd say about 75% of the decor of our house is auction-sourced, and I'm always on the lookout for a chance to upgrade when an opportunity presents itself.  If you are restoring an old house, auctions can also be a great place to get hardware and other architectural items that you might need in the restoration.  I've gotten lots of period iron hinges and latches at auction for way less than I would pay retail.

Based on my experience, there are a few keys to success at auctions.  First, you need to know what you want.  Educate yourself in your areas of interest so that you can make smart decisions.  The internet is an unbeatable tool for this, although it is helpful to go to antique shows in person to look at retail prices and talk to dealers.  Most dealers are more than happy to share their knowledge with you.

Second, you need to know what you are bidding on.  Preview the auction in person if you can, or check out the often detailed internet listings and catalogs.  Check old auction results to see what similar items have sold for recently.  Ask questions - once you have bought it (won it), there are no backsies.

Third, you need to know where you are bidding.  Some auction houses always have price estimates that are way, way too low.  It's miserable to get excited about an item only to see it sell for many multiples of the expected price, but it is pretty common.  Some auctions are frequented by big-spending dealers.  Some auctions are off the beaten path and can be a great place to score good deals.  Remember to check out auctions that are not local.  I have gotten the best deals on New England pieces at auctions in the South.  Even after factoring in shipping, you can still come out far ahead when the auction location and the item that you want are uncorrelated.

Finally, know how much you are willing to pay.  It's very easy to get caught up in the competition and bid more than you would, in your right mind, ever spend on something.  Leaving a maximum bid either directly with the auction house or on the internet is a great way to not get carried away.  It also helps to have a spouse who will kill you if you spend a ridiculous amount on something.

Auctions can be nerve wracking and frustrating when you miss out on something that you have your heart set on, but they're also a lot of fun.  You never know when that deep-pocketed dealer will be off at the restroom and you are able to buy something that you love for a song.  And, as my wife likes to point out, and for all of you hippies out there, auctions are green - the ultimate in recycling. 

So, bid well, but for the love of God, please don't bid against me.

Now, since we've established that you won't drive up the prices on me, here are some of my favorite auctions:

Northeast Auctions - Amazing Americana and early American furniture, heavy on New England.

Skinner - Holds both really high end auctions and more accessible discovery auctions.

Garths - Focused on Ohio items, but great Americana, too.

Eldred's Auction -  New England furniture and 18th/19th century accessories, with a Massachusetts focus.

Crocker Farm - Premier dealer in redware and stoneware - leave the Norwalk pieces for me, please!

Pook and Pook - The creme de la creme of early Americana, with prices to match.  Still, the catalog itself is an educational tool.

Nadeau's Auctions - Eclectic auctions with often affordable antique furniture.

Ebay - Everything and anything goes.  If you need the link for this one or the one below, I'm afraid I cannot help you. - Online aggregator of auctions.  Save search criteria and the site will email you when something of interest is up for auction. 

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