IT’S A bit like school. You study hard (in theory anyway), pass countless exams (hopefully) and over time, pick the subjects you like best. Then, if everything goes to plan, higher education beckons. Now’s the time to specialise.
To the exclusion of everything else (well, almost everything) you’re concentrating now on one subject alone. You’re mixing with like-minded individuals and despite the competition, the tuition you received in earlier years pays dividends.
Ironically, so it is with fine art auction sales. With bidding sometimes rising at the rate of £1,000 a time, to the uninitiated, they can be as scary as the first day at a new school. So how do you become initiated? Actually, it’s simple: like any learning, you start in the junior class, although in this case, they’re called general sales.
Almost every auctioneer in the country has them. They might be disguised as something
different, favourites include Carousel, or Colonnade, Gallery, County or Arcade sales, but call them what you will, at the end of the day, monthly general sales are the perfect place to learn about auctions and to cut your teeth on making that first crucial bid for the bargain you can’t wait to get home.
Monthly auctions of "Victorian, Edwardian and later furniture and effects", as the saleroom jargon has it, are the backbone of many auction houses. The property on offer comes from many and varied sources but the thrill is always in the chase.
The best sales have printed catalogues with estimates of the likely selling price listed clearly. Produced as cheaply as possible, the catalogues invariably have few or no images to help new buyers, but they do offer useful brief descriptions so that at least you know what you’re looking at and roughly what it’s worth.
The worst are photocopied A4 sheets of paper that serve scant purpose other than giving punters an idea of the order of sale.
Best of all, from a bargain hunter’s point of view, is a general sale with absolutely no catalogue. They are for the auction pupil who has reached GCSE level: only by viewing the sale thoroughly can you possibly contemplate bidding and knowing what’s been sold next is down to concentrating hard on the auctioneer’s patter.
The goods on offer can range from the very good, to the kind of stuff more generally seen in a charity shop. Families moving home, or downsizing; executors of a deceased estate needing to dispose of unwanted objects; dealers trading on stock that has been on sale but found no takers; collectors trading up (or down) and auctioneers re-offering unsold lots from their fine sales, the variety is endless. The challenge is being able to spot the wheat from the chaff.
This is where the learning process begins. Having first identified their particular area of interest, collectors buying at auction need to know their subject, be able to spot examples and know that they are right at 20 paces. For homework, they need to read as much as they can about their chosen collecting field.
There is no substitute for handling pieces to get a feel for what’s old and what’s not and this is where viewing as many auctions as possible will pay dividends. It costs nothing to attend an auction and visitors are positively encouraged to touch and handle what’s on offer.
Having viewed the sale, it makes sense to stay on to watch and learn how the auction is conducted. It’s also interesting to compare actual sale prices with the auctioneer’s estimates, where published, or to play a guessing game with prices at the fall of the hammer.
It may sound juvenile, but you’d be surprised how with a little experience, you can get one step ahead of the action.
And that’s what it’s all about. Whether you’re a student (or a landlord) furnishing a flat, a first-time buyer kitting out a house on a shoestring or just an inveterate collector, these monthly auction sales are a honey pot. The joy is knowing that whatever you buy, its value will at worst remain static or at best be an asset that could prove to be an investment.
Buy a new piece of furniture on the High Street and its value starts to fall the minute you get it home. The same piece of furniture, albeit second-hand, can be had for often a fraction of the cost when it comes under the auctioneer’s hammer.
And then there’s the thrill of the chase. Advice for the first-time bidder is to be a spectator at a couple of auctions to build your confidence before testing the water.
When the time comes to try you hand, be sure to set yourself a firm upper limit and stick to it. Bid clearly and confidently and hope no one else has spotted the lot you’ve set your heart on taking home.
Some of my best buys have come from auctions and I for one can’t wait for the January sales.