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Affordable Antiques: Tips on how to bid at auction

The time is right for value-seekers to land some real deals at auction.

Written by Doris Athineos
  • Emboldened by the current lull in the antiques market? The time is right for value-seekers to land some real deals at auction.

    These are just the kind of chairs you’re likely to bump into in a swank Art Deco hotel lobby. To own this pair of vintage club chairs trimmed in black lacquer, the winning bidder raised her paddle at Christie’s South Kensington last October. The new owner snagged the Deco duo for the low estimate, $550 each.


  • One technique for taking some air out of the auctioneer’s sail is to slice the bid increments in half (politely state your bid in $50 or $25 jumps).

    With the leftover dough, you can splurge on a striking cocktail cabinet made of figured walnut in the Thirties. A rarity in living rooms today, cocktail cabinets were once America’s answer to Europe’s curiosity cabinets. And if staycations remain popular, cocktail cabinets will too. This antique walnut mini bar opens to reveal bird’s-eye-maple-lined shelves. At almost six-feet tall, the cabinet didn’t create a stir at Christie’s where it went for a bargain $1,948, not clearing its low estimate ($3,258).
  • At auction, bidders must decide on the spot (always preview the goods a few days before the sale).

    Like a killer sample sale, the competition can be fierce. Auction salesrooms are no place for lookie-loos. But it’s not all celebrities and black-tie bidders chasing museum-caliber antiques. Value-hunters can find deals like vintage Hermès silk scarves for about $200 at Leslie Hindman auctions in Chicago.
  • To complete the look, go for the classic Hermès tote--a Kelly bag in hot red sold for $4,148, half the retail price and no six-month waiting list.
  • Keep in mind shipping costs when calculating your top bid (and stick to it).

    For instance, a Victorian-style cognac-colored leather Chesterfield sofa hit the auction block at Butterfield/Bonham’s in San Francisco last October. A leather lover carried it away for $854. Shipping and handling, however, may double your costs. Just factor shipping costs into your budget.
  • The cash-and-carry crowd makes off with some of the best deals--a set of five neoclassical polished steel garden chairs for $366 at Butterfields.
  • Also cash-and-carry: A Federal-style inlaid sideboard sold for $500 at Brunk Auction in Asheville, North Carolina. (Southerners prefer earlier editions and this figured mahogany beauty is 20th century.)
  • If you live in Manhattan near Christie’s auction house, you’re sitting pretty. Some of the most fashionable and affordable furniture hits the auction block at Christie’s interiors sales. While you read about the record-setting prices, more affordable bits and bobs are sold at Rockefeller Center. For instance, a stylish embroidered sofa by Billy Haines was estimated to sell for $1,000 to $1,500. Since an ordinary sofa goes for about the same, who wouldn’t want to sip a martini sitting on this glam Sixties sofa designed by Hollywood’s actor-turned-decorator?

    Just remember that the hammer price doesn’t include the buyer’s premium, which varies (usually from 10 to 20 percent) depending on the auction house. Just one more reason to always read "terms of sale" both online and printed in auction catalogs.
  • Strike strategically. Pay attention to what sells where. Look for modern design in the south where it’s less popular. We found an Aero Saarinen large-oval (78-inch) pedestal table and four tulip chairs with original chocolate-colored cushions for an unbelievable $1,300 at Brunk Auctions in Asheville, North Carolina, last year. Even the reproductions go for triple that amount and that’s just for the table.
  • Visit estate auctions during unpopular times (for instance, a cloudy day at a flea market) and stay until the end. One of our favorite off-the-beaten track online sites is a Canadian auction house founded in 1850, Waddington’s (

    An aggregator of auctions around the country, lets you track and sort sales by date, location and subject. That’s how we discovered a collection of glittering gilt frames carved from wood at Dargate’s in Pittsburgh (, pictured on this slide and the next one.
  • Both antique frames shown here were expected to go for less than $50 each. Just picture your child’s drawing inside. Happy bidding.