Bidding can be a thrilling way to decorate

For the past couple of years, I've been working on renovations and cosmetic updates to my old house, and even though I've still got a ways to go, enough's done to start shifting gears from plumbing and electrical to furnishings and decor.

A boutique shop or art gallery might seem to be the next step, but if you're strapped for time, auction houses offer an eclectic variety of art, furniture, rugs, accessories and more, all under one roof. Even better, depending on the day, these items can be yours at fantastic values.

Auctions like those organized by Richard Opfer Auctioneering in Timonium, Alex Cooper Auctioneers in Towson, Ellicott City's Caplan's Auction and others typically sell a curated range of items from local estates and collectors.

For the more adventurous, Eastern Shore farm auctions are a fast-paced, competitive arena for acquiring all manner of home furnishings at what can be astonishing values. Probably the best-known of the farm auctions, Dixon's Furniture Auction in Crumpton (sometimes called the Crumpton Auction), convenes every Wednesday, selling between 3,000 to 6,000 lots a day through multiple auctions running simultaneously.

Back on the home furnishings hunt myself, I recently stopped in at one of Alex Cooper's auctions and was amazed at the great deals buyers were getting on some really unusual, beautiful and rare items.

To get prepped for the auction experience, I hit the sale preview and caught up with Raab Christhilf, Alex Cooper's director of fine and decorative arts, who offered some insights on the current market. One big change Christhilf notes is the shift toward more international competition for some of the finer items available.

While the proximity of auction houses for local buyers has always been key, the online marketplace has made location mean less and less, and today buyers from China and the Middle East represent the market.

Still, one of the benefits of attending auctions close to where you live is that many of the items are of local origin. In Baltimore, a city with a rich mercantile history, auctions typically feature local silver, furniture and paintings made some 50 to 250 years ago.

The recent Alex Cooper sale, for example, offered a nice selection of 18th- and 19th-century Maryland furniture, repousse silver from Kirk Steiff, several sets of Baltimore klismos chairs, B&O Railroad china service and a cast-bronze, glass-top table salvaged from an old Baltimore bank building.

During the sale, I talked with collectors, dealers and homeowners, all looking for a good buy, a great find or maybe just the thrill of bidding against the crowd in hopes of scoring a new acquisition.

Local antiques dealer Charlene O'Malley of C.H. O'Malley confirmed what Christhilf had told me at the preview. Silver, original art and smaller decorative art pieces are selling well at auction, but the market for furniture is extremely soft right now.

Collector Brian Topping comes for what he describes as great theater.

"Auctions are exciting, and you get to see great things," says Topping who has a keen eye for significant pieces. Once he spotted an important old Pennsylvania chair that slipped under the radar of appraisers. He bought it for a song and then donated it to a Philadelphia museum. "You never know what you are going to see," he says.

Fred Duggan, collector and part-owner of Howard Street's Imperial Half Bushel, looks to local auctions as a way to acquire inventory for his shop.

"I come to the auction with an open mind, because you never know what you will find, but I am primarily looking to acquire silver for resale." Interestingly, notes Duggan, because the commodity value of silver is high right now, people are melting down old silver sets, which makes the antique silver pieces that remain rarer and, in turn, will likely raise their value.

Interior designers also recognize the value of purchasing home furnishings at auction and often go with clients to help make selections that will complement their decor. Dan Proctor, for example, of Kirk Designs will shop auctions with his clients. "It is a way of getting one-of-a-kind unique things, but also a way of finding inspiration," says Proctor. "Maybe an auction will have two really great chairs, but we need eight. We can buy the two and have a local craftsman reproduce six more."

Of course, serious collectors and dealers are looking to acquire inventory or round out a collection, but there is plenty to entice the average homeowner, too. Christhilf compares the decisions we make about decorating our houses to the way we dress and style our hair.

"Houses," he says, "and the objects in them are part of our gestalt." Well put.

But with average sale inventory ranging in the thousands of pieces, determining what is a good value can be daunting. To help auction novices process the options, Christhilf suggests that well-known makers or brands can be a safer bet, because it is easier to research vintage pieces from names like Baccarat, Baker, Potthast and others than those that are more of an unknown.

Also, suggests Christhilf, because older upholstered pieces might not be as comfortable and practical as today's, if you are looking to furnish your house it might make more sense to focus at auctions on nice wooden pieces that will accent newer upholstery. Right now, says Christhilf, there is an "increased supply and decreased demand for things like dining pieces, which often can be had for less than the cost of new, comparably built furniture."

Value aside, when the final hammer drops, an intangible benefit of shopping at auctions is the satisfaction of acquiring something you love, as well as something with a history that will continue with you.

Dennis Hockman is editor of ChesapeakeHome magazine. He can be reached at

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