Having an eye for high quality design and art can provide an advantage at auctions but you also need to know the mechanics. We learn the best practices from one of the world’s leading auctioneers - David Rago.
(Part 1) – Live Bidding
While there are more ways than ever to bid in an auction, the process needn’t be confusing or intimidating. This article will serve as the rest of four installments on how to be an effective bidder. In addition to laying out the basics, I’m going to provide some insider information, things you’d only know if you spent a lot of time on the podium as the auctioneer. If you intend to bid at auction I promise these articles will prove useful. The main ways for people to participate in an auction are live and in person, by telephone, through the Internet, or leaving “left bids” by absentee ballot. There are benefits and deficits to each of these methodologies so, starting with bidding live, let’s take a closer look.
Bidding live in the auction room is the least convenient way to participate in a sale but probably the most rewarding for the effort. First and foremost, you get to look at and personally inspect the pieces on which you plan to bid (or, after seeing them up close, NOT bid). Auction catalogues, both in print and virtual, have never been better, with digital photography allowing individual print shots of every piece. This is no small thing because, back in the day of color separations for offset printing, many lots weren’t valuable enough to justify the expense. Yet now, on line catalogues make it possible to post multiple images of every lot. Even more, a print catalogue is a static thing, once it leaves the press it’s done. But a virtual catalogue can be modified for weeks, up until the moment a piece is sold. Still, in spite of these technological advancements, nothing is as good as seeing a piece in person, and for that you have to be in the room either before or during a sale. If you purchase “smalls”, things you can fit in your car, you also save shipping costs, so there’s that. You can also speak directly with the auction house experts to best determine the condition of your lots and maybe get from them a sense of how much interest has been expressed by potential competitors.
Attending an auction in progress allows you to understand the pace of the sale leading up to the lots in which you have interest. Is the auction soft, with limited bidding from all fronts, many passed, or unsold lots, frustration emanating from the auction staff? Or is the sale a barnburner, with things blowing past estimates, nearly all lots selling, and the air in the room crackling from all the competition? While this is no guarantee that same energy will exist during the brief time any of the lots you want are selling, this can often give you an indication of what you might expect when the things you want come to the auction block.
Who’s your competition during a live sale? While more and more bidders compete on line or over the phone, there is no better way to get a sense of where other interest is coming from, and how you might best respond in the moment. Each lot takes about 45 seconds to sell, and a great deal of information is conveyed during that brief window of opportunity. Like poker, you are “playing auction” with incomplete information, making the best decisions possible with the cards you can actually see. Nowhere is more information exposed than in the auction room.
You can tell a lot about a buyer by where they choose to sit, if they choose to sit at all. The most serious bidders are either directly in front of the auctioneer or standing in the back of the room. The former position ensures that your bid won’t be missed in the heat of battle, allowing for the clearest communication with the auctioneer. Also, because there is virtually nothing to distract someone sitting in the front row, you can focus entirely on the task at hand.
Conversely, the person standing in the back of the room may occasionally risk not getting the auctioneer’s attention, but they get an overview of the room, watching the entire crowd, the action from the phone tables, and the competition from the internet. Another advantage, to those so inclined, is the machismo effected by standing up, bidding with confidence, and staring down the cluster of dealers invariably huddled beyond the last row of chairs.
If you see a group of people (almost always a cluster of men) sitting together in the back of the room yet only one or maybe two of them bid, you’re probably looking at a “pool”. These are dealers who work the auction circuit and who have made an agreement not to bid against each other. Don’t be intimidated. If you are willing to pay up to a retail price you will almost always be a stronger bidder because the pool is looking to make a profit, buying at a wholesale level.
A few pointers:
Somehow, live bidders have come to think that not bidding until the last second will give them the upper hand in auction wars. For example, two or more people have been bidding on a lot for half a minute, the price going from $1500 to $3500, until it finally stalls. The auctioneer says, “Last call”, or “fair warning” and only then does a new bidder raise their paddle. The problem is that so many people employ this strategy that the only impact I’ve seen it have on an auction is to drag out the bidding for another half a minute (which, over the course of a 1,000 lot weekend, is a tremendous waste of time). Imagine tracking the bidding on a lot for forty seconds and then, at the last moment, two or five paddles raise at once, all thinking they’re going to nail the piece for one more increment. Instead of closing the bidding all this accomplishes is pushing a higher price.
Some bidders like to sit beyond the back of the room, sometimes behind a column or a piece of furniture. I guess this is one way to hide your intentions, but it’s also a perfect method of having the auctioneer miss your bid entirely. Privacy is one thing, but if the auctioneer can’t see you clearly, expect to have your bid missed at least occasionally.
Bid with your paddle, at least to start. It’s impossible for a civilian to visualize what the auctioneer sees while on the podium. But imagine a room with over 100 people in attendance, a splash of color and flesh, and a guy 2/3 of the way back waves his hand to bid.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t see that. It’s best to bid first with the paddle supplied by the auction house and then, once the auctioneer knows you’re in the mix, THEN you can blink or nod or whatever it is you choose to do. You MUST establish a connection with the auctioneer or risk losing out. Don’t take any crap from the auctioneer, and don’t let them bully you into going beyond your price limit. This happens more than you might think, and it’s best to remember at all times that YOU are the client and the auctioneer, and his or her staff, is working for you. You are paying their wages in the form of a Buyer’s Premium, just as the consignor is paying in the form of a commission. That said; make sure the auctioneer is your friend. You have so much to gain by maintaining a good relationship with the person who ultimately runs the auction. This is no small point, and I’ll describe how a good relationship will reward you in many ways. For now, when bidding, a smile always helps.
Read the terms of sale before you bid. If the auction is “as is-where is”, you have no recourse if you find your purchase has damage or is something other than what you thought (even if the auction house’s description is wrong!).
On the other hand, if you are bidding in a “guaranteed” sale, what exactly is the auction house guaranteeing? You have a responsibility to yourself to know this and, if you’re not clear about it, to ask someone at the auction with authority and find out.
Find out more about Rago Arts: www.ragoarts.com
Credits – RAGO Arts