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10 ways to avoid getting duped at auctions

Posted: 6:19 AM, May 03, 2016
Updated: 2016-05-03 13:23:05Z

Going once, going twice — sold. Wait, you didn’t mean to make that bid, but you did and now you’re stuck with whatever it is? 

This scenario happens all too frequently for those attending auctions, especially first timers. They end up with items that they didn’t mean to bid on or even worse, an item that might not be authentic.

“Auctions are the thrill of the hunt on steroids,” says Tim Luke, a member of the National Auctioneers Association who helped with Ringo Starr’s recent estate auction. It is easy to get caught up in the heat of the moment, he adds, especially in a competitive setting like a live auction.

However, there are steps to take to ensure that an item might be real and to avoid overbidding and possibly suffering from buyer’s remorse. Here are 10 things to consider before bidding at any auction house.

Find a reputable auction house
Check out auction houses on the National Auctioneers Association website at auctioneers.org or on auctionzip.com. Or, check out your individual state auctioneer’s association. Being registered with an association means that the auction house adheres to a certain code of ethics. This also typically includes continuing education requirements.

Observe an auction
Before actually bidding at an auction, attend one or more to observe and learn auction etiquette.  “Watch what the auction staff and auctioneers are doing. Every auctioneer has a different chant or way of crying the bids. Be sure you can understand what is going on,” Luke said. “This lets you feel comfortable before you spend any money.”

Ask questions
How often does the auction house conduct auctions? Do they have a newsletter?  Do they place their catalog with pictures online? “Buying at an auction is not like buying at a retail store. In most cases, once you’ve bought the item, you’ve bought it,” Luke said. “All items are sold as is, where is, with no return.”

Set limits
Before bidding at any auction, budget an amount per item. Make sure you understand the auction house’s buyer’s premium. Most auction houses charge up to a 20 percent premium on each item won so an item you won for $100 will cost you $120 plus any state sales tax, Luke said.

If you tend to get swept up in the moment and are afraid that you won’t stick to your limit, leave an absentee bid, says Emily Cochrane, a North Carolina-based interior designer. Auction houses will accept an absentee bid for items. You can call after the auction to see if your bid was successful.

Attend preview days
While many auction houses list their upcoming catalog online, it is always best to inspect items in person. Most auction houses include pictures on their website but photographs may not give the full picture of an item, Luke says. 

Try to attend the onsite preview, usually offered a few days before the actual sale, so you can inspect the item. If you can’t attend the preview, you can request a detailed condition report from the auction house.

The report should contain information such as a piece’s age and if there any chips, paint loss or if the item has been repaired. 

Know what you are looking for
Cochrane says when she started collecting antique Asian jars, she learned to look for pottery with red flecks in it rather than purely white pottery. Older pottery will have the red, which she learned by talking to dealers at area antique stores.

“There’s gobs of resources on the Internet,” she said. “Read articles, go to antique shops, look for similar items and ask at the shop before going to an auction. It’s important to know the value.”

Thoroughly investigate any item before bidding on it
Besides knowing its value and condition, Cochrane feels it’s important to physically inspect any item before bidding. She remembers purchasing a cabinet at an auction and being disappointed afterward to find that it smelled like cigarette smoke.

“Sniff it out. Wood items can smell as bad as upholstery. I ended up lacquering that cabinet,” she said.

Read descriptions carefully
Watch for terms like Tiffany-style, which means the item is in the style of Tiffany not actually Tiffany. Also educate yourself on what various makers’ marks are. For instance, there are many Chinese cheap imitations of highly collectible Roseville pottery. On an imitation piece the mark will not be as crisp.

“Educate yourself and do your research,” Luke said. “Ask if this is the right mark. If you have any doubt, stay away from it.”

Wait to bid
Typically an auctioneer will start the bidding high but if nobody raises his hand, the price will lower, Cochrane says. “If you can stick it out, you might get your item for a low price,” she adds. “I’ve gotten great deals that way.” She also upon occasion will wait until the end of the auction to bid as the room generally clears up after a few hours of an all-day estate auction.

Maintain eye contact
When you are bidding, sit mid-way in the room so you make can eye contact with the auctioneer and see who you are bidding against. This allows you to state your interest in the item. If the item surpasses your limit, shake your head no and drop the eye contact with the auctioneer.

Lastly, at the end of the day be prepared to take your purchases, including, furniture, home immediately after the sale.

“If you’re interested in furniture, don’t drive in your two-seater car,” Luke said.

And, occasionally, it might just be acceptable to get carried away, especially if you’re bidding on something for yourself.

“You know how much you value something you love and if you have a perfect spot for it, it may be worth more money to you than to someone else,” Cochrane said. “Don’t get crazy. Don’t go into debt.”