Inside the auction room: a beginner's guide

Whatever it is you're looking for, Caroline Wheater rounds up expert tips for shopping at auction

The auction room can be a funny place. Competitive and tense, it may not seem the ideal way to spend your weekend when you could buy it, no quibble, in a shop. Behold, the H&A survivors' guide.

Without further ado, discover H&A's hints and tips to nail any future forays into the auction room... 
Expert tips

Caroline Dennard, ceramics and militaria expert with Halls:

  • Although you can bid over the internet or on the phone, attending a sale in person has distinct advantages, as well as being more fun. For starters you can gauge the atmosphere and interest in a piece and how the market is at that minute. More importantly, watching how hammer prices are going might give you the chance pick up a bargain if you notice something going cheaply.
  • Be confident in your first bid in order to establish eye contact and a relationship with the auctioneer. From then on you will be able to rely on more subtle nods or bids with the card or paddle.  You can usually see who else is bidding for each lot (either at the sale, on the phone, or on the internet) via a large screen mounted in the saleroom.

Harvey Cammell, a group director at Bonhams:

  • Research your areas of interest and be prepared to travel. Some of the most exciting sales happen off-site at country houses and museums, when collections or contents are sold. Bonhams conducts more of these than any other auction house, with The Savoy Hotel Sale in December 2007 and The Contents of Trelissick House in Cornwall in July 2013 being among the most prestigious. 

Elizabeth Fell, an antiques advisor and buyer to private clients:

  • A visit to a sale preview is a must. Auction rooms can be very busy on the day of the sale, with some lots inaccessible. Also, you may not want to disclose your interest. It’s better to go to the sale preview to view the lots, where staff will be on hand to answer any specific questions you may have about condition, age and alterations.

Jane Tennant, a director at Tennants auctioneers:

  • If you’re a novice, the best way to gain confidence is to attend several auctions and quietly watch the action unfold without partaking. You don’t have to register to bid, you can just come along on the day and observe what goes on. With auctioneers averaging around 100 lots per hour, it’s safe to say the tempo is brisk. You’ll find that most auctions are open to the public, including those at the top London salerooms, although when there’s a high profile sale you’ll need to buy a catalogue to gain entry. 

How to bid

In the auction room 

You can register with the auction house up to the morning of the sale, providing proof of ID such as a driving licence or passport. Before the sale you’ll be given a paddle or a numbered card to hold up during the sale when you want to bid on something.

By leaving a ‘commission’ or ‘absentee’ bid

Register with the auction house and leave a maximum bid for the lot you’re interested in. This doesn’t mean you’ll pay that figure but it is a cut-off point. For example, if you left a bid of £300 for a vase and the final bid on the day was £200, you’d pay a £220 hammer price (assuming bids are going up in increments of 10 per cent).

By phone 

Phone bidders must register with the auction house by the end of the sale preview, and phone lines are allotted on a first come, first served basis. A member of the staff will call you four or five lots before the lot you’re interested in comes up. When your lot does come up they will pass on your bids to the auctioneer. 


Bonhams, Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Dreweatts & Bloomsbury all have online services via their websites. The leading internet platform used by regional auction houses is Register beforehand, then leave a maximum bid, or bid live as the sale happens.

Remember, if you win a lot, you’ll incur an extra three per cent charge on the hammer price, in addition to the auction house’s buyer’s premium.

You can set up alerts, browse upcoming catalogues, browse categories, and stream saleroom action live. Other websites that offer online bidding are and links into upcoming auctions and allows you to leave a maximum bid. 

Survival tips for first time buyers

From doing your homework to setting yourself a financial limit, here’s our guide to making the most of your visit to an auction.

1 Decide what your budget is, add in a little contingency money in case the lot you’re interested in goes over that sum, and stick to it. If competition is strong, it’s easy to get carried away and pay more than you’d planned. If you think you might splurge, check you really can afford it.

2 To help work out a budget to set yourself, research the hammer prices that similar items have gone for at auction. All the London and leading regional auction houses provide this information on their websites, found under their ‘Search’ and ‘Past Sales’ sections.

3 Remember – once the hammer comes down on a lot, it represents a legally binding agreement that ownership of an item has transferred from the seller to the buyer.

4 Look out for potential profit to be made in ‘parcel’ lots. These are lots made up of several or even many items (a cardboard boxful, for example) that, sold individually to a collector, could turn out to be worth more than you paid for them.

5 Get to previews if you can. Handling and touching things at auction is expected, and the specialist knowledge of auction house staff can be very helpful if you’re starting a collection.

6 If quality is high on your wish list, look out for specialist sales on subjects such as ‘Silver’, ‘Ceramics’ and ‘Glass’, and quarterly seasonal or country house sales held by leading regional auction houses which put their best pieces into these sales.

7 If fashions change or you find that your interest in a particular area wanes, put antiques back into the saleroom and recoup your money.

8 If you’re starting a collection, buy the best you can afford. One excellent item will hold its value better and offer more potential for investment than several average pieces.


Next issue: Homes & Antiques' August 2015
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