Auctions: how to buy everything from art to antiques

Find out the secrets of auctions from auctioneer Mark Gilding of Market Harborough

auctions with a selection of antiques
(Image credit: Getty)

We're all familiar with the stereotypes of auctions: old people with paddles and accidentally bidding on something because you scratched your nose. But how much of that is true? 

We ask Mark Gilding of Market Harborough auction house Gildings to demystify the bidding process, so you can find perfect pieces for your home in the saleroom.

Find out more about buying, living in and decorating period homes on the Period Living hub page. 

Why should I shop at auction?

The best thing about auctions is the huge variety of objects that can be found. No matter what your interest, whether it is a niche collecting area, high-end art or period furnishings, you can have great fun searching for the things you love.

How do I go about finding an auction?

Most towns and cities have an auction house and are easily found with an online search. I would recommend looking for auctioneers that are members of professional industry bodies, such as the NAVA (National Association of Valuers & Auctioneers) Propertymark. Most auctioneers have an online presence and some will utilise this for live bidding. Auctions can be found on platforms such as the-saleroom.com and invaluable.com.

What research should I do before attending?

Try to learn as much about the pieces you want to buy or category that you want to collect. You don’t need to be an academic expert, but understanding periods of manufacture from a porcelain maker that you want to collect, for example, would be useful. When you are viewing a sale or requesting more information from an auctioneer, ask as many questions as possible about the item’s condition and provenance. 

How do I register for an auction?

At most auctions there is no cost to register to bid. You will need to complete a form and supply some information and identification including your name, address and contact details; often auctioneers will require a driving licence or passport to check ID. 

If you are registering to bid online, usually the account creation requires a credit or debit card as these are used for additional ID checks and can also be used for payment if you are a successful purchaser. Some art and antiques auctions may ask for further checks and possibly a refundable deposit if you are bidding on items of significant value.

Is it worth going in person or should I bid online?

Where possible, the best way to be involved in an auction is to attend in person. There can be a real thrill bidding on and buying pieces at auction, especially when you win. However, the advances in technology have made auctions more accessible from home, and you can bid online in real-time. 

What can I find at auctions?

Almost anything you can think of can be sold at auction including art, antiques, jewellery, furniture, toys and collectibles, books, decorative art and design, watches, silver and clocks. There are some auction houses that focus on specialist categories and many that hold broader sales. Many of our private clients are searching for a specific piece of furniture or are dedicated collectors in a single area. 

What are auction previews?

This is the time where you can attend a saleroom to view an auction prior to the sale day. If you can go to a viewing session you should. All of the lots will be available so you can inspect the items you are interested in bidding on. It is also a great opportunity to ask the saleroom staff questions and confirm the auction house’s opinion on the condition.

Preview sessions are usually held in the few days prior to the sale day itself. Most include one day over a weekend, usually Saturday, or extended viewing in an evening if you can’t attend during working hours. If you can’t make the opening times but want to have a look at something in person, call the auction house as viewing appointments can often be arranged. 

How to bid at auctions

If you are bidding in the room you will have a card or paddle with a bidder reference number – this is the best thing to wave in the air to bid as that is what the auctioneer is looking for. You need to make sure that you have a clear view of the auctioneer. There are some regulars who have peculiar ways of bidding, whether it be a slight nod or tapping their nose, but unless you are a seasoned pro, I wouldn’t recommend doing this! 

Tactical bidding can be tricky, and the worst thing for an auctioneer is hesitation. When the auction is in full flow you don’t want to wait a second too long thinking you might bid at the last minute, only for the auctioneer to bring down the gavel. My advice is to set your limit and bid early.

How long does an auction last? 

An auctioneer will sell approximately 100 lots per hour, and a session can last for most of the day. If you have the time to enjoy the atmosphere, it can be good to arrive early, allowing enough time to register and find a comfortable seat in the sale room.

How to be successful at an auction

Try to learn as much as you can about the piece you are interested in and have a careful look at its condition, as this will affect the value. Part of buying at auction is the thrill of the chase, and if you are not successful on a particular lot, you can enjoy searching for and bidding on the next item of interest that comes along.

Are there any additional costs involved?

Auction houses charge a buyer’s premium, which can range anywhere from 10–30 per cent. For most lots sold at auction, it is only this fee that is subject to VAT, not the hammer price. However, some lots have VAT charged on both the hammer price and buyer’s premium - this should be clearly noted in the catalogue.

The situation is slightly different for works of art created by living artists or those who have died in the last 70 years; these are subject to the Artist’s Resale Right, which can be up to four per cent of the sale price. In terms of storage, most auction houses will hold bought lots for a short period of time, but space is often at a premium and there may be charges payable after a time.

What’s the best way to pay for an auction piece?

Make sure you check the payment terms as some auction houses do not take credit card payments; others will only take debit cards up to a nominal limit and may request a bank transfer for large sums. If you are planning on spending a significant amount, speak to the saleroom staff, who will be happy to discuss payment arrangements. 

How do I get my item home?

As long as you are prepared, there is no reason why you could not take home your purchases on the same day. There is huge variety in the provision of packing and shipping available from salerooms across the country. Some provide their own service, but do get a quote before bidding. Often auctioneers will have a list of third-party shipping companies and couriers who you can contact directly.

Take a look at these houses filled with auction finds: