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Going, going ...

Whether it's a rare antique or a modern collectible, it's likely being auctioned somewhere. To nab it: Know how to work the system.

March 18, 2004|Leslie Trilling | Special to The Times

This is the first installment of an occasional feature that will highlight offerings at selected auction houses.

Over the past several years, Southern California's auction houses have become so diverse in their offerings that it is now possible to purchase, often at bargain prices, antiques and collectibles such as Pop Art prints and paintings, centuries-old Etruscan sculpture or a full T. rex skeleton. Searching for Buccellati silver or a vintage MG roadster? Chances are you can find it or take a look at it without having to leave Los Angeles.

Getting started

To begin, contact local and national auction houses and ask to be placed on mailing lists that will notify you of upcoming sales and events. Specify areas of collecting that interest you. Most auction houses publish glossy catalogs available for sale (which are often complimentary to previous buyers) and offer previews on their websites within two weeks before a scheduled sale.

Although catalogs and websites generally offer detailed descriptions, you can also request reports on the condition of "lots" (an item or group of items numbered and tagged for auction).

Whenever possible, examine them in person. Only you can determine whether the phrase "slight wear to finish" means a tabletop you can live with or have to take somewhere for restoration.

Generally, lots go on exhibit at an auction preview a few days before the sale. Previews are free, open to the general public and often travel to Los Angeles even if the auction is being held elsewhere. They are normally staffed with knowledgeable experts who can answer your questions.

Unlike a museum or gallery show, a preview provides a more intimate viewing experience; even if you have no intention of spending a year's salary on an Edward Weston photograph, you can still have the thrill of holding it in your hand. For that reason, previews are the best opportunity to make a thorough inspection of goods to be auctioned.

This is frequently a hands-on experience and it is not uncommon to see potential buyers -- armed with flashlights, magnifying glasses and jewelers' loupes -- examining the backs of paintings, turning over chairs, and kneeling to look under tables.

Knowing your limits

Auctions can be fast-paced and intoxicating, making it is easy to get swept up in the excitement and suffer buyer's remorse as bad as any hangover. Therefore, it is always advisable to set a limit for your purchases. Remember that in addition to delivery or shipping charges you also will be required to pay an additional 10% to 15% commission to the gallery (known as the buyer's premium) above the winning bid (also referred to as the "hammer price").

It is always helpful to research the items you are interested in and learn how much they usually fetch. Online art and auction sites such as;;; also can be invaluable resource tools.

Catalogs and online auction previews always list estimates of the expected hammer price. Remember, these are only estimates. Most sellers set a "reserve price," which is the lowest bid they will accept. Auctioneers are not allowed to reveal that price, but it is often 10% to 15% lower than the estimated sales price. Often it is much lower and sometimes there are no reserves.

Your game face

You don't need to sit through a whole auction to bid on that candelabrum that caught your eye. If you see an item during preview that you wish to bid on, ask a staff member the approximate time that your lot could be expected to come up for sale. Auction house staffers can generally gauge how many lots will be sold per hour and can give you a fairly accurate range of time.

When attending a live auction, find a location where the auctioneer can see you and you can see the other bidders. (The far back of the salesroom is always advantageous.) It never hurts to appear nonchalant, so that the bidding doesn't escalate needlessly, but the most important thing is to make clear eye contact with the auctioneer. When you bid, hold your paddle up and be certain that it is not obstructed and that the staff can read your paddle number.

Phoning it in

If you cannot attend the actual sale, you can still participate in the live proceedings by phone. Auction houses vary on phone bidding minimums, usually starting with lots more than $1,500. Having established your phone connection, a member of the auction house staff will call you within 15 minutes of the predicted lot time. It is always best to discuss with your phone bidder what your limits will be. Although you can change your mind as you go along, bidding happens rapidly. Your phone bidder cannot hold up the auction while you are considering your next bid.

You may also leave an absentee order bid by phone or at the preview. The auctioneer will place your bid in his book and when your lot comes up he will auction your bid against the "live" bids in the room or on the phones.

Cleaning up

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