Caveat Emptor

I grew up going to auctions and yard sales, and spent many a weekend afternoon out ‘running the roads’ with my mother and grandmother, a copy of the Saturday newspaper in hand and a picnic lunch in the back seat of the car.  In fact, I still remember the first thing I purchased on my own at an auction.

It was a house auction in a small community about ten minutes from where I grew up.  It was a beautiful summer morning, and the contents of the house were outside on the lawn for all the auction goers to view.  I can’t remember how old I was (perhaps 13 or 14) but for some reason I had money that was burning a hole in my pocket, and I ended up buying an old steamer trunk for $16.  Inside the trunk were a few odds and ends, including an old cast iron Christmas tree stand, and a small knife in a wooden sheath that was shaped like a fish.  It was the trunk that I wanted, and all of the other items just happened to go along with it.

As we were all leaving the auction that afternoon, a man came up to me who had seen me buy the trunk and asked if I was interested in selling him the knife with the wooden sheath.  Having no interest in it I told him ‘sure’, and said that I would sell it to him for $15.  He hummed and hahed, and we negotiated back and forth.  In the end he paid me $12 for the knife, and I walked away that day with a steamer trunk that I ended up only spending $4 for.  I was hooked.

Many people are wary of auctions, and others find them boring.  I, on the other hand, could stand around all day listening to the auctioneer’s chant.  For those of you that are wary, here are some practical rules to follow when buying antiques (or anything for that matter) from an auction.

Rule #1 – Pick it up

First of all, if it’s an accessory of some sort, unless it’s very expensive and very fragile, pick it up. Examine the object from all sides. Look underneath. Look for dents, chips and dings. Look for signs of use and wear. Look for repairs. Look closely. Does it feel like what you think it is?

Once you get familiar with say, Fiesta ware, it’s pretty easy to tell when you touch a piece whether it’s the real vintage item or whether it’s a modern reproduction. Any one of these two categories might be of possible interest to a collector or someone who wants to simply use Fiesta ware on their table, but it’s important to know which it is that you’re purchasing.

If you’re buying a set of tableware, silverware or glassware, make certain that each piece is in good shape, or make an inventory of what is usable. A china set with eight dinner plates but only six dessert and five salad plates may be fine for your house, but make sure you count everything. And, because the set is not complete, you’ll probably have fewer people bidding against you.

Rule #2 – Start to think about what price you’re going to set in your mind as your maximum bid for this object.

You’ll probably refine that figure as time goes along, but it never hurts to start thinking about this early.  After all, when you shop in stores, either antique stores or supermarkets, there are prices “set” for everything. But at auction, most times the “fair” price of an item is set by what one bidder, the top bidder, is willing to pay for that object.

If you want to amass a collection, let’s say of pottery, perhaps Roycroft items, get familiar with the objects and prices by visiting dealers and antique shops. Check and see what condition items that are put up for sale are in. Get an idea of prices by going to lots of shops that carry the kind of thing that interests you. Consider these visits as research, and keep in mind you are there to learn, not necessarily to buy.

Rule #3 – For larger objects, such as furniture, make sure everything works.

Life is too short to buy a chest of drawers and discover after the fact that one drawer was poorly repaired years ago and sticks. Or that you can’t unlock two of the cubbies in that great roll top desk you bought. Or that those chairs that looked like they would be just right for your breakfast table are cute but very wobbly.

Open every drawer; check all the hardware. Pull out at least one entire drawer and look how it is assembled. Is it pegged, dovetailed, or nailed? If it’s really old, examine the cuts and turnings. Do they look like they were made by power tools or by hand tools? Always look at the back of every piece of furniture. Does the back look original? Does it show signs of repair?

With mirrors and framed prints, photographs, and paintings you can learn a great deal by looking at the back. If the back is new, there’s a good chance a mirror has been resilvered. There’s nothing wrong with that but you want to know what you’re buying. It’s the same with pictures – it’s often easy to tell that the frame was assembled years ago and hasn’t been opened since. Is the back an old piece of wood or a new piece of matte board? If there are multiple fasteners and evidence of holes from another era, the chances are something has been reassembled.

No matter what it is, take the time to look it over, and don’t be afraid to take your time.  Regardless of what you’re being told it is, it’s up to you to make sure it’s what you expect, as the most important rule of the auction is caveat emptor – let the buyer beware.

4 thoughts on “Caveat Emptor

  1. Ahh!! The thrill of an auction ! I well remember a particular auction when I was struck by the beauty of a unique 4 panel oriental screen. The bidding was soaring rapidly but I was being nudged and encouraged with an urgent voice NOT to give up the bid. I stuck with it, even though it exceeded my initial limit, but have always been grateful for that “little push” that I needed. It now graces my living room and is no doubt one of my most valuable pieces! So, sometimes, one must adjust their bidding —- stay calm and listen to your heart !

    • I remember that particular auction quite fondly also. Sometimes a ‘little push’ is all we need. Great advice. Looking forward to more auction memories in the future. xo

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