What to Know Before Buying Furniture at Auctions

Finding Auctions and Where the Inventory Comes From

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 24: A gallery assistant at Bonhams auction house admires the lots for sale
Oli Scarff/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Auctions are great for finding unique furniture at bargain prices, but before buying furniture at an auction familiarize yourself with the process. There are many obvious benefits to buying furniture at an auction. You can get real bargain prices and sometimes you have access to furnishings or other objects that you wouldn't normally come across. If you are going to an auction for the first time, the quick pace and having to make split-second decisions can seem slightly intimidating at first.

Knowing and understanding the process will make it easier for you to make savvy bids.

Inventory Sources

While all kinds of items end up on the auction block, the inventory gets there from many very different sources such as:

  • Liquidators
  • Private companies
  • Homeowners who want to get some extra cash
  • Charities
  • Estates
  • Government agencies also put up impounded or lost and found items.

Finding Auctions

Auctions can be held at many different sites. Estate auctions can be held on the site of the estate, other types can be held at auction houses, hotels, community centers or even online.

  • You can search online for furniture auctions. A great search resource is Live Auction Talk
  • Look for notices in newspapers.
  • Ask around at antique or used furniture stores.
  • Subscribe with auction houses to be informed of upcoming events.

Before the Auction

It is best to prepare before you show up at the auction. The most important things you need to know in advance:

  • What you plan to buy.
  • What is the going price for your desired piece of furniture?
  • How much you are willing to spend.
  • How you are going to transport the furniture.

Previewing the Inventory

To help you prepare for the auction, you have to know the inventory.

  • Ask for a catalog, or look at it online if it is available. Go through it to determine if you want to buy anything, and how much you are willing to pay for it. Read the description carefully to look for any disclaimers. Phrases such as "in the style of" denote that the article is a copy and therefore less valuable.
  • It is best to look at the inventory in person before you bid at the auction. When inspecting furniture, you always make a careful physical inspection by going over the article carefully. You should make a note of any cracks or dents, whether a piece is in good working condition or needs repairs. Make a note of any peculiar features that you see.
  • Ask for the condition report if bidding by phone, or leaving a commission bid with the auctioneer.
  • If you are buying furniture that is in need of repairs, check out the additional cost before you bid. As a rule, you should steer clear of items that need additional work unless the furniture is a rare piece and really worth it.
  • You can introduce yourself to the auctioneer and ask for tips as they might guide you.

Tips for Bidding

Now we come to the most exciting part of the auction, the bidding process itself. If you still feel unsure, it might be a good idea to visit a couple of auctions without bidding at first. Just relax and observe the process. After doing it for a couple of times you might feel more confident in placing your own bid.

  • Become familiar with the rules, regulations, terms and conditions of the auction you are attending. Find out your payment options, and sales tax etc. before bidding takes place.
  • Auctions can be exciting and prompt people to make impulse buys. But when bidding, stick to what you know so you can avoid costly mistakes.
  • Never go beyond your intended budget. It is never a good idea in any case. There will be more auctions, and you might find something equally or even more desirable.
  • Try not to be the first one to bid. You can pace yourself better that way. If no one wants to buy an item, you might be able to get a better deal on it after the sale.
  • Listen to the description of an item at the start of bidding. Never bid on an item if you are unsure about the quality or authenticity.
  • Look for potential when buying an antique. If the piece is from a period that is currently in vogue it will be priced higher because of the demand. But if it is a perfectly good piece with a lower demand, it may be available at more of a bargain price.
  • While you can restore and repair something, remember that its value will always drop after restoration. If you are buying that piece for your own personal use and pleasure, it shouldn't matter so much. However, if you are buying as an investment, think twice about it.