A beginners guide to buying at auction

If it’s your first time in an auction room, it might seem like a daunting place. But there’s a lot of fun to be had, and plenty of unique items to be bought…

An illustration by Polly Fearne showing bidders in a salesroom


In the auction room
You will need to register as a bidder ahead of the event, up to the morning of the sale, by providing photo ID (such as a driving licence or passport). Before the sale, you’ll be given a paddle or a numbered card to hold up when you want to bid on something (so you needn’t worry about scratching your ear at an inopportune moment!)


By leaving a ‘commission’ or ‘absentee’ bid
If you can’t attend a sale, you can register for the auction and leave a maximum bid – a cut-off point – for the lot you’re interested in.

By phone
If you register as a phone bidder (phone lines are allotted on a first come, first served basis, so sign up early), a member of the auction house staff will call you a few lots before the lot you want. When your piece is up, they will pass your bids on to the auctioneer on the day.


While the top auction houses have their own digital services, regional auction houses use the-saleroom.com to host their sales online. You can register beforehand, and leave a maximum bid, or bid live. One great feature for collectors is that you can set up alerts for key pieces, so you never miss an opportunity to bid.



Decide what your maximum spend is, add in a little contingency money, and stick to it. It can be easy to get carried away in the salesroom.


Do remember that when the hammer comes down, this represents a legally binding agreement, so you have to buy the item.


Take the opportunity to visit the previews if you can. It is expected that you should handle the lots, and the auction house staff will be on hand to answer any queries you may have.


Ready for your first bid? Raise your paddle and make eye contact to build a relationship with the auctioneer. Afterwards, you will be able to use less obvious nods, or more subtle bids with the paddle. Be confident and enjoy it!


Don’t forget to factor in the buyer’s premium – an additional fee that will be a set percentage of the hammer price, and which is often subject to VAT.