How to buy and sell antiques at auction

Published by Sarah Jagger on 05 October 2018.
Last updated on 05 October 2018

Buying and selling items at auction remains very popular, if the plethora of antiques-based TV shows is anything to go by. But how simple is it to bid in the saleroom, and do antiques make good investments? Here’s what you need to know before the hammer falls

We’re a nation of antique lovers – 62% of Brits think they look good in our homes, with art deco the most popular style and anything Victorian or Georgian remaining enduringly popular.

Mary Claire Boyd from the Art & Antiques Fair, which carried out the research, says that even though we live in a disposable-furnishings era, there’s still very much a thirst for the style and craftsmanship of the past: “Antiques are appreciated for the qualities they can bring to our homes, particularly among those frustrated with spending money on furnishings that only last a few years.”

“Plus, antiques are unique, often come with a fascinating story and add individuality to your home. They are affordable and can also be combined effectively with contemporary art and furniture,” she adds.

However the research also revealed that two-thirds of Brits don’t own as many antiques as they would like to.


Antiques Roadshow expert Judith Miller (far right) has seen a revival in Chinese antiquities

What to buy

It’s too easy to offer glib advice like “buy mid-century modern and not 19th-century brown furniture,” but the antiques and collecting world is in constant flux, says Judith Miller, an expert on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow.

“Recently, Toby jugs, rare pot lids and fans are seeing a revival. Late 19th-century Chinese furniture is doing very well, and Chinese ceramics and works of art remain desirable, but the antiques market is unpredictable.

Buyers seek out rarity and condition,” she says.

Above all, she says, it’s important to get something you love: “Buy it because it makes you smile when you come downstairs in the morning.”

How to buy

Buying antiques is easier than people imagine. If you’re unfamiliar with the process, Andrew Aldridge at auctioneers Henry Aldridge & Sons in Devizes shares his pointers for success. “Always view the items you’d like to buy before the auction, finding out the flaws of the lots you are interested in. Get as much information as possible from the auctioneer. It’s their job to advise you of the age, history and estimated value.” he says.

“Always view the items you’d like to buy before the auction”

If you’re interested in a piece of furniture, check its dimensions so you know it’ll fit in your home. And bear in mind that so-called limited editions could stretch to being ‘limited’ to a million pieces.

Once you know what you are bidding for, the most vital piece of advice is to set your limit, says Mr Aldridge: “It’s easy to get carried away and bid more than you intended. You bid by raising your arm to the auctioneer – the days of scratching your nose and buying something are long gone! Many salerooms even offer a facility where you can bid on your smartphone or tablet.”

It’s important to know the hammer price isn’t the final price you pay, he adds: “The majority of auctioneers charge a buyer’s premium, so you need to factor this into your budget.

This is a set figure that’s charged by the auctioneer on the hammer price, normally 20% plus VAT, so you will be paying an extra £24 per £100 you spend.”


Finally, read the auctioneer’s storage conditions, as some of them charge fees if you don’t collect the item you’ve bought straight after the sale.

What we like to buy at auction (see below) reveals a snapshot of British taste, says Pontus Silfverstolpe of auctioneer portal Barnebys: “Time watching is right up there, alongside a thrifty attitude to finding an engagement ring and the old-fashioned interests of coin and stamp collecting. The list speaks of affection and loyalty for known things that also appealed to previous generations.”

Interestingly, what appeals to Brits differs from other European countries’ buying habits, says Mr Silfverstolpe: “For instance, in Germany and France, the top buys are sculpture and porcelain, so it’s more about culture.”

Should antiques be in your investment portfolio?

More than half (58%) of buyers believe antiques make a fantastic long-term investment, according to the Art & Antiques Fair study. However, financial adviser Danny Cox at Hargreaves Lansdown advises proceeding with caution.

“Antiques shouldn’t sit anywhere near your investment portfolio,” he says. “Most people who buy antiques do so to enjoy them or because they have a particular interest. Without specialist expertise, you are unlikely to make any money. You also have the costs of storage and security, which could easily mount up.”

Insuring your antiques

When it comes to protecting your auction buys, Ben Wilson at GoCompare.com warns that most contents insurance policies aren’t designed to cover antiques. “They’ll typically cover valuables such as watches, jewellery, stamp, coin or medal collections, pictures and other works of art, but for genuine antiques or items of high value, you will need to consider a specialist insurer or broker,” he says.

The top 10 things we buy at auction

1 Watches
2 Antiques
3 Cars
4 Jewellery (diamond rings)
5 Clocks
6 Stamps
7 Motorcycles
8 Royal Crown Derby (tableware)
9 British coins
10 Cameras

“The main issue is that standard home contents policies place a limit on the amount they will insure a single valuable item for.

This limit can vary hugely between policies, from £750 to £15,000, or a percentage of the value. And just over half of policies only offer cover between £2,000 to £5,000.”

It’s also worth noting that the limits on ‘valuables’ can apply to a single item, a pair or a set, which can make a big difference. “If you have a particularly valuable item or collection, you need to speak to your insurer to make sure you have exactly the cover you need,” says Mr Wilson.

“Your insurer may also place conditions on providing cover – for example, when you’re not wearing it, an expensive item of jewellery or watch may have to be kept in a locked safe – or on what to do if you have the item repaired,” he says.

“Art, antiques and jewellery can all increase in value over the years,” Mr Wilson adds, “so you will need up-to-date valuations to be able to make sure you are properly covered.”

How to sell at auction

When it comes to selling your item, first get an idea of the value from an antiques price guide or handbook such as the 2019-2020 Miller’s Collectables Handbook & Price Guide by Judith Miller or a website such as Worthpoint.co.uk.

When choosing your auctioneer, word of mouth is a good option. “Make an appointment with the auctioneer to visit them with your item,” says Judith Miller. “Or send images highlighting details and marks, together with any documentation you have. Or you can go to an auction house’s valuation day. It will then recommend a pre-sale estimate and advise on the sale type and date.”

“It’s worth checking what’s in your attic”


Before committing, you should confirm the selling charges, typically commission, VAT and a charge for listing the item. Some auctioneers also charge for photographing your item, so ensure you are aware of all the fees before you sign a contract to confirm you want your items sold.

Auctioneers will generally send you a pre-sale advice before the auction; this will tell you the lot numbers of the items you are selling, along with estimates and reserves.

If you can, go along on the sale day to watch your lots being sold. After the sale there will normally be a wait of a month or so while the auction house processes the payments for the auction and then you will receive your sale proceeds, minus the charges.

What to sell

Last year, rock singer Alice Cooper found a rare Andy Warhol silkscreen print that he’d forgotten he’d put into storage in the 1970s. Another version of the same image sold in 2014 for some £8 million!

You may not find a Warhol, but it might still be worth checking what’s in your attic: “We have great finds on the Antiques Roadshow all the time,” says Ms Miller. “Steiff bears, Dinky toys, Georgian shoe buckles and a 1962 Murano bird all fetch good prices. Also costume jewellery and vintage in general. But a standout item for me was a Christine Dior 1965 couture collection necklace bought in Glasgow for £5, worth £800!”

Liz loves the buzz of the saleroom

Retired housekeeper Liz Moore (left) from Milton Keynes loves the buzz of an auction. “I got into buying antiques when I moved into a Victorian property some 35 years ago,” explains Liz, 67.

“I renovated and restored the house back to its original character and wanted to furnish it with items that complemented it. Friends recommended local auction house Charles Ross in Woburn, Bedfordshire as the perfect place to pick up furniture, pictures and objets d’art – Charles Ross is now an expert on the BBC ’s Bargain Hunt and Antiques Road Trip.”

Liz says she knows many people like to buy online, but she still prefers to go to a live auction for the atmosphere: “I enjoy the excitement of clinching a winning bid and it’s fascinating to watch others bidding. My advice is always set yourself a limit, not forgetting to factor in the auctioneer’s fee. I typically spend £50 each month buying an item at auction. I’ve also sold a few items at auction: my best seller was a pair of 1980s Royal Doulton otters, which fetched £150.”

 

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