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

Part Three: Examining Stuff
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 the second installment, we discussed how a small tool kit will allow you to inspect the merchandise before an auction so you can avoid getting burned.

In this installment we'll show you how to use that tool kit to examine the merchandise you are interested in buying.

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

Don't worry, we're going to get down to bidding and strategy soon enough. But first you have to know what you're bidding on. In our first two installments we discussed what auctions are, and listed the simple tools you should bring with you when you view the merchandise that will be for sale. Now it's time to discuss how to examine any object that you might consider bidding on when it comes up for auction.

First, let's consider the physical state of the object. Start with the object's age. Is it the real deal? Is it an antique? Could it be a reproduction? If it is, is it a new, just-made reproduction or was it made some time ago? Is it in good shape? Has it been repaired? Is it broken or wobbly?

It is best not to purchase anything at an auction unless you have a pretty good idea what the item really is, and what shape it's in. Let me offer a few examples based on my own experience.

A small bronze lamp that I had not noticed during the viewing came up for bid in one of my favorite auction houses. It was in a vague art deco style, and I bought it for, as I recall, $45. I didn't think it was an exquisite piece, but I needed a table lamp for a nice dark chest of drawers, vintage American oak 1930s deco-style with bakelite handles, that I had "stolen" at the same auction hall for about $75. This looked like an old reproduction at a great price. Imagine my surprise when I held the object in my hands, turned it over to look at the base and inspect the wiring and saw a bright brand-new label that read "Made in China." It had everything but a bar code.

Now, the guy who runs this auction house is very fair in his descriptions. He never says something is old if it isn't. On the other hand, he's successful in the business and he won't necessarily tell you something is new. His catalog correctly described the lamp as "bronze lamp." If I had held it in my hands before it turned up on the block, I would not have bid on it, much less bought it. I would have spent a little more to buy something that was actually of the period. In addition to the "China" label, the detailing of the lamp was somewhat crude. I might not have gotten a bargain, and perhaps I paid too much.

Remember a saying that's been around since Roman Times: caveat emptor. Let the buyer beware.

It's one thing to make that kind of mistake when you're dealing in the low two figures. It's a lot more serious when you're dealing with high three, four, or five figure prices. I urge you to inspect every piece closely.

So that brings us to:

Rule One: Handle what interests you.
First, if it's an accessory of some sort, unless it's very expensive and very fragile, pick it up. Examine the object from all sides. Look underneath. Look for dents, chips and dings. Look for signs of use and wear. Look for repairs. Look closely. Does it feel like what you think it is?

Once you get familiar with say, Fiesta ware, it's pretty easy to tell when you touch a piece whether it's the real vintage item or whether it's the modern authorized reproduction variety, or the old knock-offs that were made in the 40s and 50s. Here's a case where any one of those three categories might be of possible interest to a collector or someone who wants to simply use Fiesta ware on their table. But you better know which it is that you're purchasing.

If you're buying a set of tableware, silverware or glassware, make certain that each piece is in good shape, or make an inventory of what is usable. A china set with eight dinner plates but only six dessert and five salad plates may be fine for your household, but make sure you count everything. And, because the set is not complete, you'll probably have fewer people bidding against you.

Some people like making repairs to damaged objects. I don't. I know I'll never get around to it. I want the things I buy at auction to be in very good or perfect shape, ready for me to enjoy.

Let me point out that I don't mean that the object must be pristine. Glassware, yes. No chips or cracks. But an old piece of furniture, even an old print or tintype can show some wear or as one auctioneer calls it, "aggravation." But it is important that you note the condition because that will be a factor in making up your mind about how much you're going to spend for the item.

In fact, while talking about dollar amounts is a little bit out of order, it's so important, and it's a process that should (in my mind) start when you first encounter the object. So let's turn to Rule Number Two.

Rule Two: Start to think about what price you're going to set in your mind as your maximum bid for this object.
You'll probably refine that figure as time goes along, but it never hurts to start thinking about this early. We'll talk about this "maximum price" more in later installments, but you might as well start now. After all, when you shop in stores, either antique stores or supermarkets, there are prices "set" for everything. But at auction, as we've learned, most times the "fair" price of an item is set by what one bidder, the top bidder, is willing to pay for that object.

All of the small items you'll encounter should be inspected for common sense problems, such as those we mentioned before. You probably don't want a big scratch in the surface of an oil painting, although you might tolerate a fold in the corner of an old print or map.

If you want to amass a collection, let's say of Mission-era pottery, perhaps Roycroft items, get familiar with the objects and prices by visiting dealers and antique shops. Check and see what condition items that are put up for sale are in. Get an idea of prices by going to lots of shops that carry the kind of thing that interests you. But remember, you're there to learn, not necessarily to buy.

Let's get back to our pre-auction viewing. Examine items carefully. Is there a label? Are there dates or the "signature" of the maker? Can you see anything else that adds or detracts from the object?

Rule Three: If something doesn't seem right, look harder.
Even without turning over my bronze from modern China, I would have known it wasn't what I thought it was because it wasn't as heavy as it should have been. If something is too light (or even perhaps too heavy) for your expectation, an alarm bell should sound in your head. Look for more clues.

If there are several elements to an item, do they really look like they belong together? You see this a lot with old oil and kerosene glass lamps the top doesn't quite match the bottom. If there's a metal holder for the wick, does it fit properly on the base?

Particularly with old fragile items, such as glass lamps, you'll often encounter what we call "marriages," where a base and top that were made by different manufacturers have lost their original mates and have now been combined into one "item." As I describe this, I realize that perhaps the term should be "remarriage."

If you're looking at old rugs, watch for partial fading. You'll need good light to see this and if the hall is dark, you might want to use your flashlight. If a good rug has been in the same spot for ten, twenty or fifty years, and if part of the room was bathed in direct sunlight, you'll likely see some fading.

Rule Four: For larger objects, such as furniture, make sure everything works.
Life is too short to buy a chest of drawers and discover after the fact that one drawer was poorly repaired years ago and sticks. Or that you can't unlock two of the cubbies in that great roll top desk you bought. Or that those chairs that looked like they would be just right for your breakfast table are cute but very wobbly.

Open every drawer; check all the hardware. Pull out at least one entire drawer and look how it is assembled. Is it pegged, dovetailed, or nailed? If it's really old, examine the cuts, frets and turnings. Do they look like they were made by power tools or by hand tools? Always look at the back of every case piece. Does the back look original? Does it show signs of repair? Is the back finished?

If the item is made of wood, is there any sign that anything is warped?

With mirrors and framed prints, photographs, and paintings you can learn a great deal by looking at the back. If the back is new, there's a good chance a mirror has been resilvered. There's nothing wrong with that and many clients prefer a good mirror surface rather than a vintage one that shows some age. But you want to know what you're buying. It's the same with pictures it's often easy to tell that the frame was assembled years ago and hasn't been opened since. Is the back an old piece of wood or a new piece of matte board? If there are multiple fasteners and evidence of holes from another era, the chances are something has been reassembled.

I once bought a great old iron single bed that my daughter now uses. The headboard, footboard and rails were covered with very old paint. Here was an instance where I was willing to put in the effort to strip the old paint down to metal and repaint this delicate, lovely bed. And I got it for only $25! Perhaps I was the only person who, in my excitement, failed to notice that the two rails were of different sizes. Only one fit the bed! It took me some time to strip and paint the bed, and only then, upon attempting to assemble it, did I learn that I needed to find another rail that would fit. That took another nine months, and when I did find the rail I needed, it was part of a pair that cost me $40. I still think I got a great deal, but I had to put more effort into the project than I had anticipated.

Rule Five: Measure the object.
Rugs, furniture, and large paintings should be measured. Make sure they fit the measurements for the spaces for which you're shopping. Even if you know there's plenty of room for an object, unless you're going to take it with you that evening (assuming you're lucky enough to buy it), you'll find it's handy to have those measurements with you so you can plan for the delivery of the item.

I wish I could tell you I've never bought something and later discovered that I couldn't get it up a narrow staircase or around a tight corner. The more information you have, the less likely you'll get surprised. There's nothing worse than buying a great runner that's 38" wide only to discover that your hallway is only 36-1/2" wide!

Rule Six: Ask questions.
In addition to your physical inspection, don't hesitate to seek the opinion of others, either knowledgeable attendees, including dealers, or a member of the auction staff. You're under no obligation to believe everything that you hear, but if you come upon an expert, you can end up learning a lot, and if you're dealing with an ethical auction house, the staff members are not likely to mislead you.

As with most things in life, you're best off if you can avoid questions that can be answered with a "yes" or "no." Instead of asking, "Is this table old?" you're far better off asking, "How can I tell how old this table is?" You can learn a lot with the right questions.

Rule Seven: Don't look at more than you have time for.
There's a big difference between looking at stuff and inspecting it. Take the time to look closely at what is most important to you now.

I can easily spend an hour or two looking at stuff in an auction hall. And in fact, no matter how much I look, how carefully I poke around, how much time I spend, stuff usually pops up on the block that I didn't notice. You're generally looking in a crowded place that is crammed full of stuff. It's very hard to see everything. Spend your time wisely. If you're looking for a nice armoire in which to hide your client's television, look carefully at every armoire, and don't spend anytime casing the china sets, the lamps, or rugs, until you've inspected every armoire carefully, making sure each is in good shape, with all doors and drawers in good working condition.

That brings me to the final rule:

Rule Eight: Take Notes
Jot down the lot number of each item that interests you. Take note of any flaws that you may want to keep in mind as the bidding increases. If there are several similar items, note which one appeals to you the most. Also, jot down the maximum price you're willing to pay.

In the next installment, we'll turn to how to set that maximum price and get down to the bidding and buying. 
Part Four

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


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