Buying at Auction


Firstly, there’s nothing to fear. Nor should you pay any heed to the old chestnut about scratching your nose and it being mistaken for a bid for something you can’t afford.

It’s a fallacy!

With the inexorable advances of digital technology, you could fill your home with antiques and fine art by bidding online without leaving home, but instead, I believe you should first master the fine art of buying in the saleroom. After that the auction world – digital or otherwise – is your oyster.


George II Silver Circular Tea Kettle on Stand 14ins high, by Thomas Whipham, London 1746 (gross weight 62ozs) Sold for £3,600

The reluctance some people might have at bidding in a saleroom is understandable, they can be daunting places. But once you conquer your initial nerves, auctions are a fascinating and often exciting way to buy things for the home.

In any auction sale there is one golden rule: Caveat emptor or Let the buyer beware. Never buy unless you have made sure the item in which you are interested is not damaged or deficient in some way. The onus to check is on you entirely. Time spent viewing and examining carefully the pieces on offer is time well spent. So arrive at the saleroom in plenty of time.

One pitfall in an auction sale is getting carried away and finding yourself bidding far more that you had originally intended. To guard against this, during the viewing, either mark your auction catalogue or make a list of anything you might be thinking of buying with a note of the highest prices you are prepared to pay. When the bidding starts, stick to the limits you have set yourself.


Maurice William Greiffenhagen (1862-1931) Oil painting – Shoulder-length portrait of a Young Girl Canvas 14ins x 11.5ins, signed and dated 1886 Sold for World Record Price for Artist - £24,000

Auction houses charge the buyer a commission as well as the seller. Check out the percentage rate before you start bidding. Buyer’s premium, as it is called, can add up to a hefty extra that needs bearing in mind when fixing your upper limit. You may also have to pay VAT on the buyer’s premium part of the price, although we and many other auctioneers charge a VAT inclusive buyer’s premium. Once the sale starts, remember the auctioneer rules the proceedings. He has the right to refuse a bid, or advance the bidding at a figure to suit him. He can withdraw, divide or combine lots at will and, in the case of a dispute, what he says goes.

If there is a dispute, perhaps where two people each think they have bid successfully on the same lot, the auctioneer will usually re-offer it and the bidding starts afresh. The winner between the two would-be buyers is, as ever, the one prepared to pay the most.


17 / 18th Century Dutch Rosewood & Ebonised Cabinet on Stand, 56ins wide x 18ins high
Sold for £4,600 to a Dutch Client

When the bidding starts, it is wise to hang back until the pattern of bids is clear. Join in when you think fit, but don’t leave it too late, or your bid could be missed. When you make your move, bid calmly and decisively, making sure you catch the auctioneer’s attention. Auctioneers have a trained eye to spot you. If a raised hand fails to catch his attention, make a spoken bid by saying “Yes” or “Here”. From then on, the auctioneer will return to you as the bidding advances. By now a nod of the head or raising your paddle is all that is required. 

There are a couple of techniques that, with experience, might help you beat the opposition:

-If the lot is reaching your price limit, try advancing the bidding by twice the previous bid. You’ll need to speak your advance good and loud. This can worry the opposition into thinking you mean business and intend to own the lot, whatever the price, causing them to drop out.

-If it is your opponent’s turn and his next bid is about to fall on your upper limit, try an advance of half the previous bid. He may have set the same upper limit as you. This is done either by making a spoken bid, or by waving a hand horizontally. However, your bid would be passed over if the auctioneer sees another bidder prepared to make the full advance.

1264-100614 (2)

Good 19th Century German Carved & Painted Wood, “Butcher’s Shop” Diorama (from the Estate of a Retired Butcher) Sold for £9,600 to a Working Butcher

There are also rules of auction etiquette and good manners:

-When you want to drop out of the bidding, let the auctioneer know by shaking your head clearly. Don’t leave him hanging on for you. This is frustrating and slows down the sale.

-If a lot is knocked down to you, give the bidding number you received when you registered before the sale clearly so the auctioneer’s clerk can make a note of it for his accounts.

-If you buy more lots, their prices will be added to your bill, which you can pay at any time during the sale. Save the receipt as proof of payment when you collect the goods.

-If the idea of bidding yourself is too daunting, leave a commission bid with the auctioneer. He will buy the lot for you as cheaply as other bidding permits NOT at your upper limit as some people think.


Designed by Ellen May Rope Each 20.75ins x 19.75ins Sold to a Specialist Collector for £8,500

It’s always wise to visit a saleroom a couple of times while sales are in progress to get a feel of how business is conducted – each auction house has an atmosphere of its own – and also get to know the auctioneer. He is a font of knowledge and someone who is always willing to share that with his customers. His advice is also impartial.


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