Antique Auctions Part 1: Buyers Beware

Have you ever attended an antique auction? I remember my first few auctions. It can be so nerve wracking. You want to make sure you are bidding correctly. You have to learn how to decipher the auctioneer’s rapid cycle auction style. You don’t want to miss out on an incredible deal. You don’t want to spend too much. There really is so much to think about. Here are a few tips to help you get started.

Before attending an auction I like to go through and view photos of what is going to be auctioned. is a website that many auction companies use to list their auctions. You can search the site based on what you are specifically looking for or you can (as I mostly do) search based on location and date. Realistically I know that I am not willing to drive more than 25 to 50 miles for an auction (unless it is just a phenomenal one). Also it works best for me to attend auctions that occur on Friday or Saturday.

The first auction I ever attended was the Lithia Springs Antique Auction. It occurred once a month and was pretty close to where I live.  I found many good deals there over the years. Since it was close to home, I was able to preview what was being auctioned online, as well as go by the auction house during the day to look at things more closely. This is a step that you really don’t want to skip.

The photo below illustrates how the auction houses have to cram as much  as possible into a tight space. Lots of beautiful pieces, but it is up to you to decide which ones are the best quality pieces, which ones would look good in your home, and which ones would you be able to sell fairly quickly for a profit.


For example, if you are looking at a dresser, you want to make sure the drawers open and close smoothly. You want to make sure it doesn’t have any water damage or surface damage. You want to make sure that china and glassware aren’t faded or chipped. Sometimes ephemera or items made from cloth will have a funky smell. These are things that you can’t see from looking at the photos online. You’ve got to touch, try out, and even smell the auction items.

Because if you wait until auction night and you see something pretty or that is a brand name that you desire, it can be real easy to get caught up in the bidding. The auctioneer’s job is to get the most money he can for each item he auctions. I don’t want to say that the auctioneers are dishonest, but some of them have been known to stretch the truth. I would venture to say that the majority of them are honest and take pride in their knowledge of antiques. However, I have attended auctions where I did not think the auctioneer was honest, but I only formulated my opinion after seeing him in action at multiple auctions (and after buying items that had damage that wasn’t visible from my seat during the auction).

Here is an example of how an auctioneer can “stretch the truth” without lying. If an auctioneer says that he thinks a piece of furniture is “probably Ethan Allen” or “looks like Ethan Allen,” well my guess is that it isn’t. Because most higher end furniture companies clearly mark their furniture inside a drawer or on the back and if it was a top brand he would see that mark and very clearly tell you that it “IS Ethan Allen” not that “IT MIGHT BE Ethan Allen.” Don’t be fooled. I speak from experience. When you are sitting in the audience anywhere from 50 to 100 feet away from the auctioneer and the item being auctioned, you can’t see water damage, you can’t see chips or fading, you can’t see a horrible smell. Just because an auctioneer says something is beautiful or in great condition doesn’t mean that you would think it is once you saw the item up close. When he makes those kind of statements, remember those are his opinions. His standards for what looks good may not be the same as yours. It is so easy to get caught up in what might be. Don’t take risks at the auction because it is too easy to end up with items that you will never get your money out of or that will never be in good enough condition to make it into your home.

Take a look at the picture below. I took this photo at the Big Shanty Auction. This is a fast-paced auction and they go through a lot of pieces in an evening. I was probably sitting in the seventh or eighth row. There were approximately twenty rows behind me. Trust me, you are not going to be able to see the details that will allow you to most effectively make the best pass or purchase decision from most seats at an auction house.

Look how high up the auctioneer is sitting. He has to climb a flight of stairs to get to his seat. Even he can’t see some of the details of what he is auctioning and he is in a hurry. He has a lot of pieces he has to auction.  I don’t think this guy is going to lie about what he is auctioning, he has a professional reputation to maintain and that doesn’t happen if he is dishonest. However, you can’t expect him to have had the time to inspect and research every piece.  He will most likely glance at a piece and formulate his own opinion of the piece’s value and condition based on years of experience. You have to do the same thing. You have to do your own evaluations and come to your own conclusions. Sometimes the auctioneer barely has time to even look at what he is auctioning. You have to look out for your own best interests.


Carefully preview the items being auctioned. Research their values. Make your own decision about whether an item will work for your personal or professional needs. Don’t believe everything you hear.

So what else do you need to think about when attending an auction? Next time I will address some bidding strategies that I try to use.

What strategies do you use when attending auctions?

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  1. Kathy A says:

    I think a tape measure is a necessity so that you know something will fit into your car or in a particular spot at home; I have a Hyundai station wagon and it is amazing what WILL fit into the back, also what won’t. A friend on call with a pickup truck can be a must for larger furniture. Also, bring tote bags and wrapping paper as not all auctions have boxes/paper handy. Also, if you are NOT knowledgable about stuff, i.e., just getting into reselling, go to an auction to LISTEN and LEARN! Furniture styles, terminology, price ranges, highly sought items, etc. Chat with others; learn from dealers. Eavesdrop! Wet wipes, hand sanitizer, and a cold drink (or 2!) are necessities, too!

  2. I love antique auctions but it is true buyer beware or bid at your own risk
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  3. Great tips! Thanks for sharing at Vintage Charm!

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