I have a problem – a mild addiction if you will – that doesn’t have a medical term or support group. My name is Laura, and I’m addicted to estate auctions, and there’s nothing like a crisp autumn day coupled with an intriguing auction notice to break down my defenses. I can get sucked in much like a gambler unable to resist the sound of a roulette wheel.
If you’ve never been to an estate auction, the idea might seem like a strange ritual – putting the personal possessions of people out for public viewing and for purchase to the highest bidder. If the person is deceased, the items can range from intensely personal to valuable and collectible to nearly worthless. Auctioneers usually list their upcoming auctions on the site AuctionZip.com, where you can search for auctions by location and date. There you can click on the details and photo galleries and browse the highlighted items to decide if there is anything of interest to you.
I love the anticipation of knowing what items will be up for auction while hoping to find unadvertised goodies. Pulling my vehicle into the lot and approaching the cluttered maze of potential purchases gives me a rush. The veteran auction goers arrive early, giving themselves time to stake out their seat location and inspect all the items that will be on the auction block that day. People jostle for position, hoping to discover hidden treasures without expressing too much interest. I am fairly social and I tend to make jokes about strange items or strike up conversations with strangers. Often I’ll get a friendly response, but sometimes I get a chilly look because bidders don’t want to fraternize with the “competition.”
At most auctions, you’ll find tables of “box lots” – boxes full of related (or totally random) objects that aren’t valuable enough to sell separately. It always saddens me to see the things that someone felt were worth saving and collecting, jumbled together in a cardboard box. Bedding, kitchen wares and linens all take on a dreary appearance in the harsh light, no matter how clean or well kept they may be. On a few lucky occasions I’ve discovered valuable items buried among the worthless – antique lingerie under some ugly hats, or an unopened bottle of expensive perfume among cheap Avon bottles. And it’s that type of victory that keeps me going, always hoping to find something unique and worth a bit more than I pay for it.
One of my weaknesses is vintage Christmas ornaments. I love thinking about all the years they were proudly hung, all the hands that carefully unpacked them. I have found them carefully labeled or wrapped in bathroom tissue, pipe cleaners instead of hooks, because people of an earlier era wasted nothing. Sometimes the untold or imagined stories fascinate me as much as the object itself.
Sadly, some estate auctions are conducted because family members are feuding, and everything was ordered to be sold rather than shared. I’ve watched sisters sitting at opposite corners, bidding against each other to buy their mother’s recipe box or photo album. But more often the family is merely disposing of leftover items, or the owner is downsizing to a smaller home or retirement village. They may be selling nice art, quality furniture and valuable collectibles because they no longer have the need or space. That’s when you can go home with some fine treasures!
If you are curious and would like to see what an auction is all about, here are a few tips to make the experience easier:
Check your local paper or visit AuctionZip.com. Enter your zip code and choose a mile radius to search – the resulting calendar will show you how many auctions are scheduled for each day. Some are online-only, but many are on site. There are several auction houses in the MOV and most have sales on a regular schedule.
Once you’ve found the auction that interests you, check the time and location. Many auctioneers have their own facilities, which usually include seats and a restroom. But if the auction is on private property, you’ll likely need to bring your own chair. Usually there is a concession stand; call to ask about restroom availability if you have an aversion to porta-johns.
Arrive early! I usually give myself an hour to register, find a good seat, and look over the items. If it’s advertised to be a really big sale, you may want to be there even earlier.
Bring your ID. You’ll need to register to get a bidder number, so have your ID ready.
Make sure you know whether the auctioneer charges a “Buyer Premium.” That charge, anywhere from 5-20%, will be added to your total. I look for auctions that say “No Buyer Premium” and if they charge extra for using credit cards I take my checkbook.
Come prepared. I always take a couple of totes or boxes and some light packing material. If you win some fragile items, the assistants will bring the items to your seat and you’ll need to wrap it for protection. It’s not unusual to see the active bidders with boxes and piles of items as the day goes on.
Examine the items that interest you carefully! Everything is sold “As Is”, so if you bid on a glass vase, only to find it’s cracked afterward, there are no returns. Usually the auctioneer will note any obvious flaws when he presents the item, but he may not and each buyer is responsible for examining it beforehand.
Don’t be afraid or intimidated! If you’ve seen fancy auctions on TV, where just a nod or wink equals a bid, don’t worry. Country auctions assign every bidder a number, and the auctioneer will watch for those numbers to wave in the air. Sometimes people will yell out, if he doesn’t see their hand up.
Pay attention. If an item is being sold as “Choice”, you are bidding on the opportunity to pick your favorite from a lot. For instance, there may be a table of vintage watches. If the high bid is $20, the winner can pick as many watches as he wants for $20 each. Then the remaining watches will go back up for bidding, until they are all sold.
Listen closely. If the auctioneer says something like “One price times 3” you are bidding to buy all three items for the same price each. If the winning bid is $5, you will pay $15.
Bring a friend or family member! Not only does it make the day more fun, but if the auctioneer announces they will be using “Two Rings” there will actually be bidding in two parts of the site. Sometimes one auctioneer will handle the outdoor items while another sells the indoor items. I’ve gone to one “ring” while my husband stays at the other with my wish list.
Stick to your budget! It’s so easy to get caught up in the bidding, and I’ve gone home with things that I didn’t even intend to buy. Nothing makes an object desirable more than someone else wanting it. You can be flexible if you really, really want that cool thing, but don’t buy something you’ll regret just to be the high bidder.
Stay to the end if you can. When many of the buyers have gone, the remaining items will start to go for very low bids. Some of my favorite purchases happened when there were only a handful of bidders left.
Remember your spot. I know this seems obvious, but keep in mind what vehicle you drove. I once bid on so many totes full of items, I had to make another trip back to the auction site. That is not helpful if the auction is nearly 50 miles from home!
Since opening my shop, I’ve sadly missed out on many Saturday auctions. But I do manage to make it to a few Sunday afternoon sales, and one of my favorite buys is a taxidermy squirrel riding a pheasant. Weird? Totally. Unique? Yep. And that’s what keeps me going back! So find an auction, put on some comfy clothes and grab your bags. I bet you’ll find it’s hard to stop at just one.