Part One  Part Two  Part Three  Part Four  Part Five  Glossary of Terms

Going Once, Going Twice
A Guide to Buying Antiques, Art and Accessories at Auction

Part Two: Preparing to Inspect Auction Lots
By Chuck DeLaney

In the first installment of this series, we covered what auctions are, why they might be of interest to the interior designer and decorator, and how the auctioneer gathers the merchandise that will be sold at auction. We'll get back to the mechanics of how the auction is actually run, and how to bid successfully in the next installments.

In this segment, I want to cover the crucial first step that will allow you to avoid getting burned at an auction. It involves inspecting the merchandise before the auction. And that inspection requires that you bring along a small tool kit.

Before we get started, I just want to add that I'm anxious to hear any feedback, comments or questions anyone reading this series might have. Please e-mail me at

Your Inspection
Inspection of the merchandise that will be offered for sale at an auction is essential. You must do this before the lot goes on the block. You can't look at something for the first time when it is put up for bid and expect to be able to make informed decisions about how much to pay, the state of the item, or its benefit to you.

Different types of auctions have different methods of allowing the viewer the opportunity to inspect the merchandise that will be offered at auction. In larger, more formal auctions, the promotional advertisements that announce the auction will list the viewing times that are available. In larger auction operations, this may include several sessions in the days leading up to the auction. In smaller operations, your opportunity to view the lots in the auction may be limited to an hour or two before the auction begins.

The House Auction
Before we get into the tactics you should use to conduct a thorough inspection, I want to take a minute to discuss one special type of auction the house auction. Thus far in this article, I've discussed auctions with the assumption that the sale will take place in an auction hall. That's not always the case.

In the first installment, I explained that many times an auctioneer will "buy a house," meaning that the auctioneer makes an offer of a set amount of money for all the contents of a home. This can happen when the homeowners are moving to a new location far away, but most often it happens when an elderly homeowner passes away and the far-flung heirs seek to liquidate the estate, with the exception of a few items that the heirs of the deceased homeowner may elect to keep.

Now sometimes the auctioneer will clear all the goods out of the home and take them to his/her auction hall. But that takes time and costs money. The auctioneer has put up thousands of dollars to purchase the estate. If he/she now has to expend the cost of trucking the merchandise to an auction hall and preparing it for auction, that means added costs for labor, and a delay on the return on the initial investment.

Particularly in the summer, an alternative is for the auctioneer to hold a quick "house auction" right at the location of the home from which the contents were purchased. This is often a wild-and-wooly affair where the auction staff comes in the day before the auction, puts tags with lot numbers on all kinds of stuff, pitches a tent and sets up a hot dog stand.

On the day of the auction, if the weather is good, the auction house's staff will start early in the day bringing large objects out of the house. If the sale starts at 10am, people interested in inspection will start to show up around 8am. By sale time, there are cars parked all over the neighborhood, people poking around looking at all the household furniture, art and objects that will be auctioned, and a near party atmosphere.

Suffice it to say, a good house auction (or farm, barn or business auction) held on location can be a lot of fun. It's often the case that the auctioneer and his staff have inspected the objects that will be sold less carefully than would have happened if everything had been taken back to the auction hall. That means that there's room for surprises, excitement, and maybe big bargains. If you've never been to an on-location house auction, in my opinion you're missing one of life's great treats. It's a great way to spend a sunny spring or summer afternoon.

I wanted to discuss the house auction before we move on to inspection so that readers understand that not every sale takes place in a dark, crowded auction hall. But, whether you're headed to a home or a hall, the basic procedure is the same.

Your Inspection "Tool Kit"
Before you depart for the auction, you need to assemble a few basic tools that will be of great benefit in your work. At a minimum, you need to bring: A tape measure, a small flashlight, your glasses or a magnifying glass. Depending on your interests, you might also bring a reference guide or two, a digital camera, and a pair of gloves.

Let's look at each of these items and why you need each one.

Tape Measure. Obviously, you need this to confirm that a given object is the right size for your needs. Often auction houses will give dimensions of rugs, but they're frequently wrong. Furniture, mirrors and other objects never have dimensions listed. This means you need to check all measurements yourself. You're buying each object "as is." That means if you buy a hall runner that is three inches too wide for the hall that you have in mind, you own it, and there's no returning the merchandise.

In a future installment, we'll look at the limited circumstances where you may be able to persuade an auctioneer to take back something after it has been sold, but they're very limited. I can tell you with certainty that an objection such as "It's not the right size for my needs," is not going to be a winning argument.

Measure Before You Go.
Now, knowing how big an object is doesn't help you much if you haven't measured the space you have available for that object before you buy it. That means you need to measure the spaces you have in mind carefully, unless you're attending an inspection system that is being held on a day before the auction. If that's the case, you can measure the objects and then go back and check the space available.

Now, if you're shopping for yourself and are looking for a library table, a roll-top desk and a new rug for your study, you should have measured all the details about that space and have that information at hand. If you're looking for something for a client, then you probably have all the measurements you need in your sketches and floor plans.

With proper care, you should never buy anything that doesn't fit.

Small Flashlight. As I've mentioned, most auction halls aren't well lit. Even where the lighting is OK, you need to inspect a piece of furniture very carefully before you buy it. That means getting under the desk, looking for negatives damage or repairs for instance, as well as positives, such as the signature of a manufacturer. I once purchased a Mission oak desk at an auction barn that was always very dark. Inside one of the desk's drawers, my flashlight revealed something very important, the branded signature of the piece's maker, Charles Limbert.

This means the work was, to use the parlance of auctioneers and antique dealers, "signed." "Signed" can mean anything from signed by the name of the maker, artist or the workshop, to signed "Italy" or "Occupied Japan." And, just because something is "signed" doesn't mean that it was really made by whoever is alleged to have "signed" it.

In the case of the Limbert desk, I knew the signature was correct, and the piece had all the classic indications of the Limbert style. Plus, the workmanship and finish was typical of good Mission craftsmanship. I kept an eye on the desk during the rest of the inspection period, but it no one gave the piece a thorough going-over.

The result? I paid $200 for a small exquisite Mission oak desk that would probably fetch ten times that amount in a SoHo antique store.

Glasses and Magnifying Glass. The Limbert signature was large and easy to read. That's not always the case when you're looking for signatures, defects, or clues about origin. You should always bring a magnifying glass and, if you need them, your own glasses. Particularly when you're looking at small objects, such as jewelry, you need to be able to get a close-up look.

Inspecting things like art paintings or engravings, for example a magnifying glass is often essential to make a critical judgment about what you're seeing.

Reference Guide. If you're interested in something specific a type of antique, art or rugs, you may benefit from having a reference guide handy. For example, if you're interested in paintings by members of the Hudson River School, a guide that lists the artists, including the lesser know ones, and gives their dates and samples of their signatures, can be very handy making a decision whether the purported item is the real thing.

In addition to verification, guides can give you an idea about the value of an object. Suppose, for example, you collect Fiestaware pottery. Some of the different specialty pieces, such as platters or pitchers, are quiet rare. They are rarer still in some colors. Do you know which ones are the most infrequently found? Here's a place where an up-to-date guide can give you a clearer idea about how much to spend.

Digital Camera. If you're attending an inspection a day or more before the auction, and particularly if you're shopping for a client, a digital camera can be a great tool to help you record information about items that interest you. This way, you can quickly show the items that interest you to others your family members or your client.

You may need a little help getting enough space to photograph an object, but if you ask nicely, the chances are the folk at the auction house will be happy to help you, particularly if you get there early and the inspection area isn't too crowded.

Pair of Gloves. Your hands are crucial tools for your inspection. You'll use them to feel for microscopic chips or "dings" on china and crystal. But when you're feeling around under a piece of large furniture, the chance or getting a splinter or jabbing yourself on an old rusty nail means that you might be wise to take some precaution to protect yourself.

Your tool kit is ready, and it's time to set out to the inspection. As I'll explain in the next installment, you'll not only be inspecting the piece to determine its condition and quality. You'll also be setting a price in your mind. 
Part Three

Reprinted with permission from the Sheffield School of Design web site at


Part One  Part Two  Part Three  Part Four  Part Five



Copyright 2005 Times Publishing, LLC All Rights Reserved