Drew Pritchard's guide to buying antiques at auction
Get ready for the auction room as Salvage Hunter Drew Pritchard divulges the inside track to placing the right bid under pressure
The first time I bought anything from an auction house, I was a young dealer of about 23 and I bought a load of industrial lights and book trolleys from the local library. I had my old Beetle outside and I had to go through this corridor of older dealers all laughing their heads off at me as I loaded this stuff (that I had bought for next-to-nothing) into the back of my car. I said, ‘Laugh it up boys, you’ll all be buying this stuff in 20 years’ time.’ Thankfully, my words have come true.
These days, I only buy from auction sporadically, when I see something that really catches my eye. But every Sunday night I trawl through every auction catalogue of sales across the country. If there’s anything I like, I ask the auction house for a condition report, more information and pictures. From that, I narrow down what might be of interest. I have mates scattered across the country who can go and look at an item for me – and I do the same for them around the North West. If everything checks out I book a phone line for the auction. If you bid online and your internet connection goes for a minute, you can lose out. Saying that, there is no substitute for the atmosphere of the auction room.
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I love the excitement and the noise of an auction and seeing what happens when dealers go up against each other. But more than that, I love it when a ‘sleeper’ comes up. A sleeper is something unexpected that turns up at a general auction and makes huge money. I once saw an oriental vase that had been buried in a box of junk reach £50,000.
Usually before an auction I will write the price I am prepared to pay for an item on a piece of paper in front of me and then I stick to that price, no matter what. That is my golden rule, although I did break it a couple of years ago…
I was at a well publicised country house sale with a mate of mine who I do a lot of business with. We’d had a bit of a night with a few drinks the evening before, then during the day they were giving out champagne. Now, the lot I really wanted wasn’t due to come up until 5.30pm and we really got into the spirit of the day!
The energy was great, there were some fantastic pieces to see going through the auction room and I’d chatted to loads of dealers I’d bumped into there. Everyone was having a great time. At last my lot came up. It was a magnificent Irish cast-iron desk with a steel-and-mahogany top. It had been painted black and the paint had rubbed off, giving it a wonderful patina. It was a major piece that took three blokes to lift.
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The bidding started and I let someone else have the first call, then I put in a big, strong bid – to clear the room of any messers. I sat back and let the bids roll before naming my final price. I got swept away with the atmosphere. But that day, determined to win the desk, I forgot all about the piece of paper with my top price marked on it!
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I ended up winning it and paying £2,500. It was a magnificent piece but it needed a huge amount of restoration – about £2,000 worth. I had overpaid, but we did the work and I put it on at £5,500 to get my money back. I sold it to Paramount Studios in California to one of their executives.
It all worked out, but it could have been an expensive mistake. To help you get the most out of the salesroom, take a look below for my top tips for buying success at auction.
Drew's tips for buying antiques at auction
- Ring up and ask for extra images and a condition report. It is free of charge and a good way of assessing an item. Be mindful that this might not be an option for items valued under £200 or at small auction houses.
- Go and handle the piece you’d like to bid on. Crawl all over it – but not too much or you’ll attract attention and risk pushing the price up.
- Make sure you are properly registered with the auctioneer in good time for the auction, and check that he will accept cheques from you if he doesn’t know who you are, otherwise you’ll need to be prepared to pay cash.
- Auction rooms can be intimidating. Avoid jitters by getting to the salesroom a good 30 minutes before the bidding starts. Sit somewhere you feel comfortable – this might be at the back or out to the left.
- Don’t look like a tourist – go with it all and blend in. Avoid catching people’s eyes.
- If the auctioneer says: ‘One more bid sir/madam’ it means your current offer is on the reserve price and your next bid will exceed that and win. A good auctioneer will do this.
- Always remember that not only do you need to allow for your commission on top of the hammer price, but you also have to take your piece away, whatever its size or weight. There generally will be a shipper on site who you can contact to organise transport of furniture and large objects, but it is generally more economical to be prepared to take it away yourself.
More from Drew Pritchard:
How I got into the antiques trade
Drew Pritchard’s sofa collection with Barker and Stonehouse
Drew Pritchard on his book, favourite antiques and upcoming ventures
How to create country house style
How to be a successful antiques dealer
The thrill of an unexpected find
Inside Drew Pritchard's home
Must-find garden antiques
How Drew Pritchard became an antiques dealer
Behind the scenes at an antiques fair with Drew Pritchard
Drew’s best antique finds
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