There’s no denying the excitement of a live auction: the auctioneer’s spitfire commentary, the thwack of the gavel, the thrill of raising your paddle and (omg!) winning the bid. It’s as much about the experience as getting the goods.
Online auctions, on the other hand, with their click to bid buttons and page after page of options, just don’t have quiiiite the same sex appeal. You might even say they’re off-putting – who wants to spend an afternoon watching tiny digital pictures of art get bid on for zillions of dollars in some building halfway around the world?
But here’s the thing: Online auctions are an absolute treasure trove of high-quality furnishings, and arguably one of the best places to score a deal. Not like a thousand-dollar “deal”; a real deal – $200 might get you a coffee table, a killer oil painting, or a bundle of vintage rugs if you shop the online auction right.
Plus, you’re supporting a local business while you do it. So we put together a little demystifier to get you started.
This absurdly cute Vistosi Murano glass “Mushroom” table lamp has a starting price of $210. It goes up for auction on July 29th at MG Neely Auction in Lantana, Florida.
Find some auction houses nearby
You’ve probably never noticed it, but if you live in a city or town it very likely has an auction house. Start googling around. Do a drive-by. Then get on their website or on the phone with them to see when the next auction is coming up, and mark your calendar. Yes, this article is still about shopping online auctions – it’s just that the closer the auction house, the less you’ll spend on shipping. (Pick up your item in person to avoid shipping costs!) Plus, you’ll be able to attend the preview to see some of the items in person before bidding, even if you plan to bid online. Don’t give up hope if you can’t find an auction house in your town; just skip down to the next tip!
It’s common to find smaller items grouped in sets at auction. This trio of vintage baskets, all dreamy, have a starting bid of $20 (!). Shop for them on July 25 at John McInnis Auctioneers in Amesbury, Massachusetts.
Make an account with an online auctioneer
LiveAuctioneers and Invaluable are two great sites that host tons of auctions the world over. (Your local auction house might partner with a specific site, so just ask them which.) Make an account, and then start poking around: LiveAuctioneers has a “find auctions near me” section, where you can drop in your zip code and see the auction houses in your state and region. Also start searching for styles and designers you like, because those will lead you to good auctions. Ah, this random auction house in Louisiana has a set of Perriand chairs? You might not be able to afford them, but scan the rest of the auction – it’s probably not the only winner in the bunch.
You’ll also be able to flip through the auctions going on right this minute, the world over. Find one that focuses on furniture – not that the fancy antique jewelry auctions are a bad thing…they’re just not our thing – then watch it live. Don’t even register at this point, just pop out the little auction window and put it on in the background of your computer. This’ll help you get a feel for how online auctions work before you start bidding.
Don’t get obsessed with finding designer items – these unique, streamlined midcentury chairs start at just $100 at Donny Malone Auctions’ July 22 event in Saugerties, New York.
Start plotting your first purchase
However spontaneous auction shopping might seem, you’ll be guaranteed better success if you prepare. Rather than just bidding on a random item in a random auction going on right this minute (please don’t do that!), research first. Find an upcoming auction taking place in your region, and study the offerings. Measure the place you want to put that little side table, and be sure it would actually fit! You’ll also want to budget ahead of time: Write down the lots you’re really interested in on a sticky note, along with the max price you’d pay for each piece – doing this on the front end will guarantee you stop bidding if the price climbs too high. You might even save or star the items on the site, so that you’ll get notifications when they’re about come up. In any case, mark the date of the auction on your calendar and use the next week or so to think how much you really want X item.
This Dunbar Dining Table by Edward Wormley has a starting bid of just $275; it’s up for auction on July 26th at Abington Auction Gallery in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Get familiar with the financials
There are a few secret fees you should know about before you bid on a piece of furniture in an online auction. The first is shipping, which usually isn’t officially calculated in advance. What you can do is reach out to the auction house’s preferred shipper and ask for an estimate. It might not be much if the auction house is nearby, as shippers will pick up a truck of inventory and drop off the pieces around town on one run. But if they have to drive it across the state? Or ship it on a container from Europe? A four-digit shipping fee might change the max price you’re willing to pay for that lovely farm table that has such a low opening bid at an auction house in Germany – one more reason to shop from local auction houses if you’re just getting started.
Another fee to know about is the “buyer’s premium,” which is essentially a cut that goes to the house (to, you know, pay their employees). Twenty-five to 30 percent is pretty standard, but calculate that out before you set your top bid. There are also repairs to think about if the piece isn’t in tip-top condition. You might be clicking the “Bid $150” button, but with $50 shipping + $37 buyer’s fee + a $400 reupholstery job, that’s actually a $637 purchase.
Now if that results in a super unique, made-to-last antique loveseat in your favorite-ever fabric, you’re probably still winning – a flat pack sofa in a bad color would have cost you more and fallen apart sooner, probably! Just think through these things ahead of time before you spend your hard-earned dollars.
Who said a vintage rug has to be a fortune? This red Moroccan rug starts at $200; bid for it in the July 26th collection at Material Culture in Philadelphia.
Register and bid!
The time has come. Register for the auction ahead of time, as it might take a few days to get approved. And if you can get to the preview, go see the piece in person (sometimes pieces look different in photos; you might hate the thing you thought you’d love and love a totally unexpected thing that photographed poorly!) Set a reminder for the auction’s start time. Generally, these things move pretty slow – that auctioneer talks quickly but it takes some time to get all the bids in and close the lot! – so Lot 100 (the coffee table of your dreams) might be well into hour 2 of the auction.
After the auction starts, check in periodically to see how it’s moving along so you don’t miss it. Did we mention you can do this from the Invaluable or LiveAuctioneers app on your phone? Yet another perk of online auction shopping.
Once the item is coming up, join the live auction so you’re ready to bid. It can be nerve-wracking, but we recommend waiting at least a moment to see if someone else bids first! Sometimes, if nobody is bidding, they’ll drop the opening bid and you’ll be able to get it for even less. Tap that bid button! You might win it right then and there with no competition, or perhaps a bidding war will begin. Stay focused and keep bidding – but only up to your max price! Don’t go over it. Just don’t do it. There will always be another auction.
Could we be any more into these bamboo armchairs with a starting price of $160? Nope. Shop for them at Westport Auction’s July 22 event.
Get Your Goods
Omg, you won the bid. Congratulations! All that hard work will feel worth it when you score a one-of-a-kind antique piece for next to nothing. Once all the lots are done, the service will email you about how to pay the auction house. And then the auction house will email you about its preferred shipper. (If neither of those things happen, obviously just call the auction house to figure it all out!) If it’s just a little vase at the local auction house, waltz over and pick it up in person. Meet the auctioneer. Ask when their next auction is. And get ready; this is the start of a very healthy new addiction.