If after viewing the relevant auction lots you decide that you might want to bid on one or more of the items, then the first thing to do is find out whether you should register. Most salerooms will want you to fill in a form with your name, address and phone number before the sale commences; some will issue you with a number or a paddle to hold up should your bid be successful, while in others you simply call out your name and fill in the form at that time.
If you are not going to pay in cash then ask whether a cheque or a credit card will be acceptable as a method of payment. If you intend to spend a rather large sum of money you may have to supply bank references.
Sales may last for several hours. Indeed, sales at country houses can last for several days. If the lots which interest you are towards the end of a sale and you do not want to sit through the whole auction, check the catalogue to see if it gives any schedule for the day, or find out how many lots the auctioneer generally sells per hour. Usually, this seems to work at about 90-100 lots per hour, but remember to allow yourself a bit of extra time so you don’t arrive too late – there is nothing worse than arriving to find that the piece you are interested in has been knocked down to someone else, especially if it has gone at a price well under your initial estimate.
When the sale begins, the auctioneer will introduce them self and quickly get down to business. He will start by calling out each lot number to be sold and will start the bidding at a figure which is usually slightly below the lower estimate. In his copy of the catalogue he will have the reserve prices marked in red so he will know when an item can be sold and when it cannot. As the people present at the auction signal to him by waving or nodding, he will call out their bids in regular sums called increments. Depending on the value of the piece, the bidding could raise in £5, £10, £20, £100 or even £1,000 increments. The larger the value, the larger the increment. The increment will also tend to decrease as the bidding reaches a climax.
The auctioneer will indicate that bidding is finished by banging a small hammer called a gavel on the rostrum and recording the sale and the name or the number of the successful bidder. Many people who have never been to an auction before often worry than an ill-timed cough or sneeze could be mistaken as a bid and land them with an unwanted purchase. Anyone with experience at auctions will tell you that this is unheard of.
When you are making your bids for the first time, remember to make them clearly and quickly. In a packed sales room it can be quite difficult to attract the auctioneer’s attention but don’t be faint hearted. If you think that the auctioneer is not seeing you or ignoring you don’t be too worried, as often the auctioneer will only take bids from two or three people at a time, when one drops out he will look around the room for someone else to join in. If you are still within your limit, that is your moment.
Once you have successfully bid for an item at auction and won the bid, you will of course have to pay for it. Bear in mind that your share of the auctioneer’s commission is usually 5%-15% of the hammer price, (that is the price at which the object is sold in the sale room) and VAT on this commission will usually be added to the successful bid.
Glossary of Auctioneers’ Terms
As with any professional body, auctioneers use certain terms whose meaning may not be immediately clear to the novice. Each auctioneer develops his/her own language style and the following phrases are amongst those most often heard on the auction floor.
“It’s against you”
This means that the auctioneer has received a bid from another person, has a bid from a telephone buyer, has a bid from a potential buyer or is operating the seller’s reserve against your bid. The phrase will be used to identify a bidder who has already entered the bidding. If it’s against you, you will no longer have the leading bid.
“It’s against the room / the bid that’s here / on the phone”
Here the auctioneer is making it very clear that the bid being given is either in his book or on the telephone. If it’s in his book, it could be either a reserve price or another bid. Where there are multiple telephone bidders at the larger auction houses, then it is often the case that the telephone bidder will be referred to by name so that confusion does not set in.
“I’m selling this at ….”
This phrase generally means that the reserve price set by the seller has been met and a bid will secure the item.
“With the hammer”
Occasionally a bid will be made just as the hammer is coming down. Here the auction has the right to cancel the first “sale” and continue the bidding. This practice can be very irritating especially for the successful bidder, and auctioneers also retain the right to allow the first sale to stand, encouraging the second bidder to bid more quickly in the future.
“Going once, going twice …”
In this author’s experience, it is very rare to hear this actually said in an auction room and is more usually the domain of movies and amateur auctioneers. A more common gentle reminder that the auctioneer is about to bring the gavel down is a phrase such as “all through then” or “last chance then”. This achieves the same results in a less dramatic manner and makes the auctioneer look less foolish if and when the bidding picks up again and goes on for several more increments.
“Passed”, “bought in” or “unsold”
Any of these words will be used when the auctioneer brings the hammer down on an unsold lot.
In the UK something known as “The Ring” is said to exist. This is an illegal conspiracy to deflate the prices paid at auction and is achieved by two or more dealers agreeing in advance not to bid against each other. One of them – the ring leader – bids on behalf of all of them. They then re-auction the lot or lots amongst themselves later on an activity known in the trade as “the knock-out”. There is no doubt that Rings do exist in the UK from time to time although you would be generally very hard-pushed to prove their existence. From a seller’s point of view he should be protected from the Ring if the auction house has put a proper reserve on the piece.
From the buyer’s point of view, there are some people who believe that if the Ring is active it is possible for a private buyer to secure the lot at a lower price than might otherwise be the case. On the other hand, others believe that a Ring protecting its own interest will run up the bidding in order to make a private buyer pay over the odds, and thereby discouraging them in the future. However, if you stick to your own pre-set limit, a Ring will not be able to affect you in the slightest.