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What You Need to Know Before Bidding at Auction


Auction houses are an exciting place to find one-of-a-kind antiques and everyday wares for a lot less.

Photographs by Jim Graham

It’s a drizzly Saturday morning in rural Chester County, and Jake Secor is on the hunt for mule deer. He doesn’t need a bow or a rifle to bag his prey. Another hunter took care of that years ago. Secor is after a mounted deer head to display in his man cave. He’s currently stalking it at Hill’s Auction in Landenberg, Pa., where furniture, rugs, jewelry and other goods have gone on the block since 1968.

Secor and his girlfriend, Erika Beck, are regulars at Hill’s, which holds sales on most Fridays and Saturdays starting at 9 a.m. “We love old things, unusual things,” he says. “There’s something about seeing, touching and smelling that makes buying at auction an exciting experience.”


Storied Past

The practice of selling goods to the highest bidder was first reported by the Greek historian Herodotus, who wrote about prospective husbands competing for wives in 500 B.C. By 1595, the London Gazette regularly detailed auctions of artwork at taverns.

In the Brandywine Valley, there are auction houses to suit a variety of bidders. Briggs Auction—a fixture in Garnet Valley, Pa. since 1962—sells 1,500 household items each Friday night. Every other Tuesday, William Bunch Auctions & Appraisals sells antiques, art, china, silver, glass and more at its Chadds Ford, Pa., gallery. Uniques & Antiques in Upper Chichester, Pa., is a go-to for Mid-Century Modern pieces.

In Downingtown, Pook & Pook is a nationally recognized destination for Pennsylvania decorative art. Last March, Pook auctioned locally made 18th-century furniture from the home and office of Albert Barnes, the eccentric physician and art collector who established the Barnes Foundation. America’s oldest auction house, Freeman’s of Philadelphia is a destination for antiques lovers who want to upgrade. Recent sales included a Queen Anne walnut dressing table made in Philadelphia around 1750. It fetched $8,125. A pair of Federal carved mahogany side chairs, circa 1800, sold at Freeman’s for $1,690.


Jim Hill keeps things rolling at his Chester County auction house.

All in the Family

Jim Hill grew up in the business founded by his father, Shorty. Now 66, he’s seen major shifts in the industry. Business boomed in the early 2000s but stumbled after the recession in 2008, when there were more consignors than bidders.

Today, despite a stable economy, it’s still a buyers’ market as supply continues to outstrip demand. “The baby boomers are downsizing, and their kids don’t want that stuff,” Hill says.

Still, Secor, Beck and other buyers see the value in vintage furnishings. The couple decorated their 4,000-square-foot home in Fair Hill, Md., almost exclusively with pieces from auction. Their haul includes a handmade mahogany coffee table and prints signed by Jamie Wyeth, scion of the Chadds Ford family of artists. They sleep in a king- size bed they bought for $40. “It was painted blue, a really bad paint job that looked like a kid did it,” says Secor. “We went to work on it, got rid of the paint and stained it in a glossy piano finish.”

Their biggest bargain so far is a Persian carpet that adorns their home theater room. The rug is so large, few bidders had space for it. With minimal competition, it was theirs for a scant $120. “We got it home, unrolled it, and it had a $9,000 price tag on it,” Secor says.

The couple has finished furnishing their home, but they still go to auctions, picking up art, accessories and other pieces. If they see furniture they like better than something they already have, they buy it and resell the old piece.

Going, Going, Gone

Inside the cavernous gallery, prospective bidders inspect the goods, opening drawers to scrutinize the quality of dovetail joints, lifting cushions on settees, turning over wooden chairs to make certain the legs are solidly attached. One man even sniffs an intricately patterned Oriental rug for pet stains.

The regulars know the drill: Register for the sale when you arrive, hold up your card or your hand if you want to bid, and be prepared to whisk away whatever you win after the gavel strikes.

Even for regulars, buying at auction requires a time investment. A young Amish woman sips water and munches chips as she waits for a chest of drawers to go on the block. The owner of a boutique in Centreville, Del., looks for pieces with a French country vibe that can be restored and resold.

Charles Adams, an aficionado of petroleana, artifacts that reflect the heritage of the oil industry, has traveled from Maryland in hopes of adding to the collection of vintage gas pumps he displays with his classic cars. “I’ve always been fascinated with the history of gasoline— signage, oil cans, pumps,” he says.

Right now, he’s eyeing a vintage chaise lounge to serve as a bed for his 7-pound Yorkie. “I think it might’ve been a salesman’s sample for someone who sold full-size furniture,” he says.

An experienced bidder, Adams is careful not to show excitement when he makes a great find. Doing so can alert the competition. He also resists the temptation to overbid. “I set a price that I want to pay,” he says. “Once the bidding gets there, I walk away.”


Jake Secor bags his deer.

Hot … and Not

A Victrola mounted in a cabinet filled with dozens of albums is brought to the floor, and a record played to demonstrate it’s in working order. Despite its grand nature, on this rainy morning, bids run dry and it sells for a mere $100.

Meanwhile, Mid-Century Modern lamps, Beatles albums, tall case clocks and costume jewelry are fetching top dollar. Once- popular Victoriana has fallen out of fashion, along with the likes of Pez dispensers, stamps and Depression-era glass.

Bidders intent on setting a fine table are finding deals as heirs consign grandmother’s china and crystal. “People are way more casual these days,” Hill says.

Consumers have also grown comfortable with making purchases online, ptompting the trend toward auction houses offering in-person previews of lots, with bidding online. Pook, Briggs and other auctioneers have reduced their live auctions in favor of more online.

Hill, on the other hand, has no plans to invade the web. But he does willingly contend with people who can’t make it to the site and bid by phone.

When the mule deer trophy comes on the block, Secor is ready. In only a few seconds, the prize is his—for just $20. The victor hoists the deer head onto his shoulders, careful to avoid the antlers, beaming as he carries it out. “It’s a beautiful deer, and he’ll look great on my wall,” Secor says. “You never know what you’ll find at the auction. Sometimes, the best things find you.”


Know Your Auction Lingo

• Absolute auction: Every item sells to the highest bidder, with no reserve or minimum sale price.
• As is/where is: All items sold exactly how and where you see them at the time they’re offered; no returns or guarantees.
• Bid: Dollar amount offered.
• Buyer’s premium: Typically 15-18 percent, this is added to the selling price to determine the total purchase price.
• Consignor: Seller. Hammer price: The final bid amount.
• Knock down: The end of bidding, when the auctioneer closes the lot.
• Lot: Item(s) up for bid.
• Reserve: The lowest sale price for an item. Confidential and set by the seller or auction house.
• Telephone bid: Bidding in real time over the phone during an auction. For those unable to attend in person.