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How to Attend Live Antique Auctions

Updated on October 20, 2014
Diane Cass profile image

Diane is a lover of all things beautiful; music, art, antiques and nature. Her guides bring insight to topics she cares passionately about.

Display at an Antiques Auction

Ask an attendant to open the case if you want to inspect something more closely.
Ask an attendant to open the case if you want to inspect something more closely. | Source

Everything you need to know about finding auctions, bidding and winning treasure.

Few things are as exciting as going to a live antique auction. There is suspense, drama, winners, losers and buried treasure. What could be better than that? I've been attending live auctions for years, and I never get tired of them. Nothing is more exciting to me than hearing "SOLD!", and seeing the auction assistants coming to me with MY hard won treasure.

In this lens I will introduce you a real auctioneer, give you tips and tricks for bidding and winning, and help you find live antique auctions in your area. If you love antiques and have never been to a live auction, consider attending one near you.

Meet the Auctioneers

Joe Hessney (L) and Mike, his assistant auctioneer.
Joe Hessney (L) and Mike, his assistant auctioneer. | Source

Meet an Auctioneer

Joe Hessney, of Hessney Auction Company in Geneva, New York, is my favorite auctioneer (that's Joe on the left and his assistant auctioneer Mike on the right). One of the things I love about Joe is the way he runs his auctions. They are very organized and run so smoothly.

Joe has been an auctioneer since 1981. When I asked him how he got interested in becoming an auctioneer, he said that his first job was working for an auction house. He got bit by the auction bug and went on to attend Auctioneering school at the World Wide College of Auctionerring in Mason City, Iowa. I didn't even know there were auctioneering colleges, did you?

If you are looking for an auctioneer to either attend an auction or to sell your antiques, consider the following:

1 - Choose an auctioneer with experience. Ask them how long they have been in the auction business.

2 - Check for credentials. The auctioneer should hold a current license from the state in order to do business. Also check to see if they are a licensed appraiser.

3 - Attend auctions of local auctioneers. Each one will have his/her own style of running the bidding as well as their trademark "chant". I find that the bidding "chant" is a deal-breaker for me. I like Joe's very much. He has a deep, resonant voice that is easy on the ear. Some other auctioneers I have tried sound strident, or even nagging, and it gets unpleasant to listen to after a while.

Watch a Live Antique Auctioneer in Action

Here is Joe Hessney auctioning off antiques at an on-site auction. You can get a feel for the pace of the auction and the smooth way that Joe conducts the bidding.

Guides for Buying Antiques

Guides that give you good information on the types of items you collect are the best. Skip the price guides, as they are quickly outdated and the prices are often overly inflated.

True or False?

Don't scratch your nose!

If you raise your hand to scratch your nose, will the auctioneer consider that a bid and you might get stuck buying something you didn't mean to bid on?

See results

How to Find a Local Live Antique Auction

My favorite website for finding auctions is Auctionzip..Input your zipcode and give it a range of miles that you are willing to travel, and the site will show you a calendar of all the auctions happening within that radius. Listings include information on the auction house, the terms of sale, pictures of the items up for bid and contact info.

Tips for using the site:

- Use the search Category filter to look for just antiques auctions.

- Click the blue auction results to see local live auctions.

- Click the red auction results to see the online live auctions.

- Sign up as a member to receive regular announcements of area auctions.

- Register to attend live internet auctions and bid online.

See what auctions are happening in your area.

Beautiful antique vase up for sale
Beautiful antique vase up for sale | Source

Before the Auction

Research you should be doing before you go

The biggest mistake you can make when going to a live antique auction is to NOT do your research before you go. Research includes the following activities:

1 - Go to the preview to view and handle the items ahead of time.

2 - Check online for current price trends for the item.


Most auction houses hold a preview either the day before or the hour before the auction begins. Use that time to go and handle the items you are interested in. Inspect them thoroughly. Make sure there is no damage, that the signatures and hallmarks are real and that the item is what it is claimed to be. I once inspected a beautiful Ansonia china clock that I was interested in. It was gorgeous and looked flawless on the outside and in the auction pictures, but when I picked it up, the back came off revealing a burned out interior. It had been in a fire. Needless to say, I didn't bid on it.


Doing your homework before the auction can save you money. If you know ahead of time the approximate value of an item, you won't overbid or get caught up in a bidding war. Places you can look for current values are...

- eBay completed listings. Look for similar items that have ALREADY SOLD, not the current listings of hoped for prices.

- Online auction results can be found at places like (fee based)

- Antique Price Guides like Kovel's.

True or False?

If you don't like it, you can return it.

Auction Quiz Question #2 - (Answers at the end of the article)

Happy buyer!
Happy buyer! | Source

If you buy something at auction you can return it if you don't like it.

See results


Now the fun starts!

Register with the auction house to receive your number. To register, you give them your name, address and phone number. You also have to give them a credit card number. This is to insure that you don't skip out without paying. Nothing will be charged to the card. You can choose to pay by other means when you check out. Now you are ready to bid on items that interest you.

One of the most important rules for bidding in a live antique auction is to...


The type of bidding can change rapidly, and if you aren't paying attention, you can wind up buying 10 silver spoons instead of just one. Here are the basic types of bids you might encounter at a live auction.

- "So much buys it" = One bid price for one item.

- "So much for all" = One bid price buys the whole lot.

- "So much for so many" = Bid price x number of lots or items. This is often used with box lots. Bid one price and then take as many boxes or items at that price. If you bid $20 and choose two boxes, your purchase price will be $20 x 2 = $40.

- "So much EACH take all" = Bid price x ALL the items in the lot.. This type of bid is often used for things like sterling silver flatware. The flatware is sold as a set, but the bid goes by the piece. You have to keep your mental math going as you bid. A 45 piece set will bid by the piece and then multiply by the total number in the set, so a bid of $30 will multiply by 45 for a total of $1,575. OUCH! You have to be really careful with this type of bidding to make sure you don't overbid.

Every auctioneer has their own style and terms for the types of bidding. Just watch and observe the bidding for a while before you jump it. That will help you understand what is going on so you don't make a mistake.

When you bid, make it obvious. Hold up your number card so that the auctioneer can see it as a deliberate bid. Hold it HIGH. Some people add a verbal signal as well, such as a whistle, or will call out "Here!!".

The happy lady in the picture won a box lot of antique Bavarian china for only $10. No wonder she's smiling!

True or False?

"So much each buys 'em all"

You bid $20 for 72 piece set of sterling flatware.

Wow, $20!

What a bargain!

Auction Quiz Question #3 - (Answers at the end of the article)

Look at all the goodies!
Look at all the goodies! | Source

In the scenario in the pink box above. the final purcahse price of the sterling flatware is $20

See results

More Tips for Bidding, Reserves, Pick-up and Safety

Reserves - An item that has a reserve placed on it will have a minimum bid price set by either the auction house or the client. If the bidding doesn't go above that price, the item will be returned to the owner.

Stick to your Price - Set a price you want to pay for your item and don't go over it.

Bidding Wars - It is easy to get caught up in the emotion of trying to get an item that you REALLY want. Don't do it. You will almost always come away feeling taken to the cleaners. If someone else wants it that bad, let 'em have it. I you have unlimited income, the sky is the limit of course, but most of us don't have that kind of liquidity.

Hold on to your items. Once the auction runners hand you your item, NEVER walk away from it. If someone else steals it, you are still responsible for the payment. It's a good idea to go to auctions with a friend so that you can keep an eye on each other's things if you have to, say...go to the bathroom, or get something from the snack truck.

Pick-up - All items must be removed from the auction house premises by the end of the day, unless alternate arrangements have been approved. If you are buying big items, like pianos or furniture, take a truck with you to the auction. Absentee bidders must arrange for a date of pick-up when they are notified of their win.

You just won a silver bride;s basket, but now you need to go to the bathroom. What do you do?

Auction Quiz Question #4 - (Answers at the end of the article)

You are by yourself at the auction and you just bought a beautiful silver bride;s basket, but now those 3 cups of coffee you had for breakfast are catching up to you. You need to visit the bathroom, but you aren't finished buying yet, and don't want to check out.

What do you do with the silver basket while you visit the bathroom?

See results
Diamonds are a girls best friend!
Diamonds are a girls best friend! | Source

You will almost always pay a Buyer's Fee

Paying for Your Auction Items

Most auction houses charge a "Buyer's Fee". A buyer's fee is an amount, determined by the auction house, that is automatically tacked onto your final purchase price. The auctioneer is paid for his services with a combination of this fee, and a percentage the consignee pays from the sale of the items. All the rest goes to the person who consigned the item. The buyers fee varies from auction house to auction house, but it will always be a part of the purchase. It works something like this...

You purchase 4 items. The final bids add up to $100 for all of them. When you go to check out, the auction house will add the buyer's fee and sales tax to your total.

$100 Final bid total

$10 Buyer's Fee (10% of final bid price)

$8,80 Sales tax

$118.80 Final purchase price

At Hessney Auction Company, they charge a 13% buyers fee for credit card purchases, and 10% for cash or check purchases. Some auction houses charge as much as 20%. Make sure you understand what the buyer's fee is before you bid, and be ready to pay it at check out. You can save money by paying with cash or check.

Auction Quiz Question #5 - (Answers at the end of the article)

Find lost of great art at antiques auctions.
Find lost of great art at antiques auctions. | Source

You bought 7 items at the auction and your bids add up to $275. The buyer's fee is 13%, but you are paying with cash, so you get a discount and only have to pay 10%. Your local sales tax is 8%.

What do you pay at checkout?

See results

Answers to the Auction Quiz

#1 - TRUE. This actually happened to me once. Auctioneers are looking for any signal that might mean a bid. Every bidder has their own style of bidding and they don't always use the numbered card or paddle to bid. A reasonable auctioneer will forgive a mistaken bid if you bring it to their attention right away. Others will hold you to it and make you pay. It is amazing how itchy your nose can get at an auction. If you have to scratch your nose, look down. Eye contact with the auctioneer makes it look even more like a signal to bid.

#2 - FALSE. All sales are AS IS. You are responsible to know about, and inspect the items you bid on. If you make a mistake and purchase a fake or damaged merchandise, you can't return it. The only exceptions to this rule are if the auctioneer misrepresented an item in some fashion. For instance, if they stated that a sapphire ring was 5 carats, when it was only a 3 carats, you may be able to negotiate a refund. Reputable auctioneers will stand by their items and accept responsibility for their own mistakes. You are responsible for your own lack of research or inspection of items.

#3 - FALSE. The final purchase price is $20 x 72 for a whopping total of $1,440!

#4 - D. Always keep your things with you or have someone you KNOW watch your things if you have to leave for a moment. Don't lock your items in your car. There is generally no security in the parking lots and someone can easily break in and steal your treasure.

#5 - B - You will pay $275 + $27.50 buyer's fee + $24.20 tax. Total is $326.70

Antiques Roadshow Primer: The Introductory Guide to Antiques and Collectibles from the Most-Watched Series on PBS
Antiques Roadshow Primer: The Introductory Guide to Antiques and Collectibles from the Most-Watched Series on PBS

Every collector should own one of these books. It is the very best guide to evaluating antiques and collectibles. This is not a price guide, but an evaluative tool. It will help you understand what makes an item real or fake, old or new.


Other Ways to Participate in Live Antique Auctions

You don't have to be present to bid on an item in a live auction. There are a number of ways you can still participate without actually being there.

1 - Absentee Bid, Cal or visit the auction house a day or two ahead of the scheduled auction. Tell them you want to submit an absentee bid. They will take down your contact information, payment info and your maximum bid for the item you want. You can leave bids for more than one item. If you win the bid, they will call you with the final price. If your maximum bid was for $100 on a sterling bowl, but the bids only reached $50, you will pay only $50 plus buyer's fee and sales tax for it.

2 - Live Phone Bidding - Call the auction house before the auction begins. Tell them you want to bid over the phone while the auction is going. Give them all your information and the item number you are bidding on. They will call you just before the item opens for bid and will bid for you while you are on the phone with them.

3 - Live Internet Bidding - Many auction houses now allow live auction bidding by internet. You can actually watch the auction on the internet, in real time, and bid from your computer. You have to register online ahead of time in order to participate.

Tell us if you aced the quiz share any auction experiences you may have had. I love hearing about what other people collect and the treasures they got for a bargain.

How did you do on the Quiz?

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    • MelRootsNWrites profile image

      Melody Lassalle 

      4 years ago from California

      This was fascinating. I think it would be interesting to attend an auction, though I think I'd be afraid of getting caught up in the bidding. I had no idea that there was auctioneer college. I would imagine it takes great skill to do what they do.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Very Interesting Information! Thanks for sharing........

      Unlimited Auctions

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      i've never been in an auction...nice lens...

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      I've not attended an auction for years, so am a learner here and you provide very good information, thank you!

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Very excellent information you've put together - blessed by a SquidAngel!

    • karMALZEKE profile image


      7 years ago

      Great job with this lens. You hit all the major points to being successful at the auction. Nice photos too.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      thanks for the information, like it

    • chezchazz profile image


      7 years ago from New York

      Have been going to auctions for longer than I'd care to admit. Between auctions and eBay we've furnished our house with some fabulous pieces for a lot less than friends who buy new stuff - Plus they are entertaining and interesting (and one of my favorites also has really good food available). And not every auction charges a buyer's fee. We have some local ones that do not and others that range from 5% to 20%, so it is really important to figure that in when you determine what your top bid will be.

    • rayray131 profile image


      7 years ago

      Great lens,

    • profile image


      7 years ago


      I'm not sure if you'll see this as it appears this is an older posting to respond to, but, here goes! I like your article a lot. Good, solid information with a good level of accuracy. I hope all auction goers read it! However, I do have one topic to ask that you reconsider. You state in your finding an auctioneer tip section, "1 - Choose an auctioneer with experience. Ask them how long they have been in the auction business". While in theory, this is reasonable, in reality, it can be a mistake. I own an operate an auction company in NE Wisconsin and we're starting our third year. We run a reputable and experienced business even though we are only three years along. My point of information for your consideration is this: There are a number of auction companies out there that after decades of operation, leave much to be desired when it comes to serving the client, in the client's best interest. I believe that after an extended amount of time, many auctioneers lose sight of what they're obligated to as an auctioneer. That being to safeguard and work toward the client's best interests. Whether it is greed that takes over or arrogance, or any number of shortfalls, many fall prey to it. A great example in today's industry is the buyer's premium being used so religiously. This practice came about due to the open opportunity to simply make more money while doing the exact same thing as was being done before. When a buyer is charged more, they will typically bid less, often times enough to make up the difference. When buyer's bid less, there is no way to do the math where the answer to the equation comes out in favor of the client. Buyer's premiums put more money in the auctioneer's pocket and less in the client's pocket. That's factual. With that being the case, how much of a difference does the years of experience or better termed, "years in business", make to the client in the end? I believe the way to determine the right auctioneer is to attend a few auctions, talk to auction goers in your area and if possible, talk to past clients of the auctioneer. They should be willing to provide a reference list of past clients when prompted. If they don't, there's the first sign that you should look elsewhere.

      I am not trying to undermine the auction industry and am certainly NOT insinuating that all experienced auctioneers become greedy and lose sight of their responsibilities. I am purely bringing this subject to light to prompt more thought in the auctioneer selection process. Do your homework and ask important questions. Always remember, just like in any other business, auctioneers are trained professionals. That training is often learned on the job, through years of struggling and hard work. Issues like charging a buyer's premium are sure to present themselves over time and for some in the industry, make great sense to improve their business' bottom line. Find an auctioneer that is focused on serving you as the client, has the experience in the type of item you want or need to offer to the bidders, and then, you've found yourself a good auctioneer.

      Thanks again for a good article. The buying public needs all the help they can get to keep the playing field fair... and fun!

    • Diane Cass profile imageAUTHOR

      Diane Cass 

      7 years ago from New York

      @skefflingecho: Great story! I've had similar successes with my auction buys and then selling them on eBay. Cha-CHING! Love that sound. : )

    • skefflingecho profile image


      7 years ago from Tobermory Ontario

      I love this lens, great tips. I wrote a how to one on Hubpages and it is so much fun to go, You certainly learn the whole time you are at a sale! Great job on the lens, blessed.

      Ok here's a story, I am in Canada a, but I got an American Lakeside Press book (1911) in boxes for $1 and sold it for $400 on ebay! One American history book was published in Chicago each year by Lakeside press and given to friends of the press, starting in 1903. they were never sold. The auction estate was so large there was a second installment 2 weeks later, I paid $40 for 2 boxes with 2 more of them in (I had already looked up the first and sold it to a gentleman in Georgia I think), I sold the other two for another $400 each, and I bought books on how to ID antique linen with the proceeds, so I could learn about antique linens as I have always loved them. I was lucky to deal the finest linens the past 8 years on ebay Mill*pond*cottage!

    • Diane Cass profile imageAUTHOR

      Diane Cass 

      7 years ago from New York

      @aesta1: The great thing about auctions is that you can SELL your stuff there too. All that stuff you bought at the auction can go back up for sale there. If you've taken good care of your things while you had them, you may even get your money back, or even gain a little profit.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 

      7 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      I love going to these auctions when we were still furnishing our house but now we are letting go of many things so we have not been for some time. I find auctions exciting.

    • spartakct profile image


      7 years ago

      Good info!!

    • gamecheathub profile image


      7 years ago

      Bid-a-Bye / Bid-a-Bye / Bid-a-Bye / Going Once! / Bid-a-Bye / Going twice! *hammer* Sold! Fun lens!

    • Anthony Altorenna profile image

      Anthony Altorenna 

      7 years ago from Connecticut

      This is a very interesting and helpful lens. I've only been to a few live auctions and never purchased anything (the prices went too high for me) but I really enjoyed viewing the items and the electricity generated when a couple of bidders are vying for the same item.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Didn't ace the quiz.

      Good info in this lens.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Excellent article. You covered everything. I love attending auctions, but have to admit I have gotten carried away at times and bid on things that I hadn't thoroughly checked out, or got caught up in a bidding war. You live and learn. I am going to put a link to see on my lens about where to sell collectibles.

    • Diane Cass profile imageAUTHOR

      Diane Cass 

      7 years ago from New York

      @anonymous: The answers to the quiz are at the bottom...under this comments section.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Never been to a live auction but curious of the test results.

    • Diane Cass profile imageAUTHOR

      Diane Cass 

      7 years ago from New York

      @SheGetsCreative: Hey Upon-Request, thank you for taking my quiz. The answers are at the bottom of the page. Just scroll down and you will see it.

    • SheGetsCreative profile image

      Angela F 

      7 years ago from Seattle, WA

      I have yet to go to a live auction but it's definitely on my list of "must-dos" now that I think I've mastered the art of garage sale-ing and treasure thrift shopping. Great lens! (but can we have the answers to the polls please -- kinda wanna check my math! ;P

    • Stazjia profile image

      Carol Fisher 

      7 years ago from Warminster, Wiltshire, UK

      I've been to several auctions and successfully bought from them too. Your advice is excellent and should be read by anybody who is new to auctions. Blessed.

    • Scarlettohairy profile image

      Peggy Hazelwood 

      7 years ago from Desert Southwest, U.S.A.

      I love going to auctions but have to stay away. I want to buy too many things I don't need! They are great places to find really unique furniture and household items though if you're in the market!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Love this lens, Diane! I've only been to country auctions, which are more like outdoor Estate Sales, I guess. I have my favorite auction house, though, and try not to miss their auctions, as long as they're on the weekends. I'll be back to re-read your lens beofer I go to the next one!

    • Diane Cass profile imageAUTHOR

      Diane Cass 

      7 years ago from New York

      @Pam Irie: I've been to both types of auctions. The most recent auction I went to was an on-site estate auction. Those are the best, because sometimes you get to see really neat old houses. They are always a little sad too though, knowing that a death occurred. I like to think about the positive side of it...finding a new home where the persons beloved treasures will be loved once more.

    • Pam Irie profile image

      Pam Irie 

      7 years ago from Land of Aloha

      The only type of auctions I've been to are the outdoor summer auctions that are held at the private owner's estate (and these were back in my home state of Missouri.) Most of these are to settle estates after a death, but some people host a "living" auction where the owners are just wanting to cash out. Either way, I sure miss going to these auctions. Fun times!

    • Animaverick profile image


      7 years ago

      Not so good lol. Thanks for the info, haven't been to an auction in quite a while but used to love them!

    • Diane Cass profile imageAUTHOR

      Diane Cass 

      7 years ago from New York

      @Frischy: LOL! Well, I would worry about you if you tried to fit a house in the trunk of your car K. I haven't been to a house auction and have no idea what that is like. That could be a great lens for you.

    • Nancy Hardin profile image

      Nancy Carol Brown Hardin 

      7 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      I've never been to an auction, so I had no idea what the correct answers were to your quiz questions. But the lens is well-written, great information right from a professional auctioneer, and I think you did a fine job. Thanks for sharing.

    • Frischy profile image


      7 years ago from Kentucky, USA

      I think the only thing I have bought at auction was a house. It was nerve wracking! At least I did not make the mistake of locking it in my car (the answer I got wrong on the quiz). Great lens! I learned a lot!


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