Tony Auctions For Everybody

Major houses like Sotheby's and Christie's are running moderately priced sales to attract a broader spectrum of buyers

Picture an auction of fine art, and you might imagine a crowd of dapper aristocrats in a lush wood-paneled room. As the auctioneer presents a painting by some brand-name Impressionist, buyers scratch their noses or tug their ear lobes to signal a secret bid. When the bidding stops, a hush envelops the room as the auctioneer calls out "Going, going, gone" and lowers his hammer.

It's quite a dramatic scene. If only it weren't so Hollywood. In the real world, bidders rely more on numbered paddles than noses. Auctioneers end each sale simply by asking: "All through?" And these auctions aren't just about coveted works of art or rare wines and manuscripts. Increasingly, major auction houses are offering more moderately priced items, including jewelry, furniture, and fine china, in an attempt to attract a broader spectrum of buyers. Sotheby's (BID ) has its Arcade Auctions, Christie's its House Sales, Doyle New York its Doyle At Home, and Bonhams & Butterfields, the SoMa and Sunset sales.

At all these auctions, price points are far lower than those at more exclusive sales. Items sold in 2003 at Bonhams' twice-monthly lower-end events, for example, went for an average of just $522. "We are trying to educate the public and demystify the whole process," says Laura King Pfaff, chairman of Bonhams & Butterfields.

Experts say the best buys can be had on jewelry, rugs, and furniture. Consider this: On Jan. 14, Christie's auctioned off a vintage Queen Anne-style red tavern table. Christie's appraisers thought the table would fetch as much as $1,200. The selling price: $478.

GOOD DEALS

Of course, plenty of goods beat expectations. A pair of 20th century rock crystal and green quartz lamps that Christie's thought would bring in between $8,000 and $12,000 actually went for more than $33,000 last October. At the same sale, a Danish serving cabinet from the 1950s sold for $2,629, way above the $500 estimate. A South Seas pearl, diamond, and platinum necklace auctioned off by Bonhams in December exceeded the $5,000 estimate by a cool $2,638.

Even then, experts say these can be good deals. Why? Because buying that same item at a retail store costs a lot more. The necklace from Bonhams, for instance, would have retailed for about $25,000. That's why auction regulars say it's important to ask specialists at the auction to identify dealers in the crowd, and then watch how they are bidding. They will pay a price only up to the point at which their markups are still large enough. So if you're willing to outbid the dealers by 10%, you can get a good value. "I always hope and pray that my competition is a dealer," says Louis Webre of Doyle New York, who sometimes bids on behalf of absent clients.

None of this means that Christie's and others are looking to compete with eBay. Indeed, live auctions offer a very different experience. "People can view everything before a sale. They can touch it, turn it around, and ask specialists on the floor questions," says Heather Johnson, director of Christie's monthly house sales, which offer moderately priced items. "Then on the day of the auction, you might get a bargain or you could bid against someone who will pay anything to get the item. You never know."

POINTERS FOR NOVICES

The you-are-there pitch resonates with many consumers who still feel uncomfortable making purchases online or buying goods sight unseen. "There may be better prices on eBay (EBAY ), but you can't see anything in person, so it's much easier to make a mistake," says Ed Berberian, a collector of Native American artifacts in Los Angeles who regularly shops at live auctions and on eBay.

In addition to specialists on hand to assist buyers during previews and sales, most auction houses put their catalogs, as well as tutorials that walk buyers through the auction process, on their Web sites. They explain everything from previewing items, known as lots, to bidding. Doyle New York hosts a once-a-month seminar for novices. Apart from the basics, attendees can pick up little-known pointers at these events, such as how to discern how much certain items may fetch. Since several like items are often sold, finding a lot similar to the one you want to buy that sells early in the auction will indicate how much your item is likely to go for later.

Some other important things to know: Most items come to auction on consignment, either through estates or because of divorce, and are sold as is. That means the inventory at each sale changes, and the items offered can be a wide-ranging mix, from Native American textiles to fine crystal to vintage musical instruments. It's important to examine items closely for size and flaws during previews, which are usually held a few days before the auction. If you know what you want, auction houses have staffers who will notify you when a possible match comes up for sale. It's particularly helpful if you're trying to fill out old china or silver collections.

Appraisers assign each lot a value range. When the sale begins, the auctioneer will start bidding below the low estimate. All lots will be sold -- even under their estimated prices -- unless sellers place minimum reserve prices on them. Many buyers are surprised to find that the so-called hammer price, which is the final bid, is not the final cost. All auction houses tack on a buyer's premium, which can be anywhere from 5% to 20% of the winning bid. In addition, buyers need to factor in taxes and shipping.

You need not be at the auction to take part. Most auctioneers allow bidding by phone, fax, or online. That's good news, since these lower-priced events are held only in headquarters cities -- New York for Christie's, Sotheby's, and Doyle New York. San Francisco's Bonhams, though, also runs a sale in Los Angeles. Try to go in person. It may not be the stuff of Hollywood, but it's still a lot of fun.

By Linda Himelstein

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
    LEARN MORE