Pointers for getting in on auctions

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's high season for New York's big auctioneers. From now through June, there's practically a sale a day at either Christie's or Sotheby's. Sometimes both. If you've ever hankered to get in on the auction action, now is the time.

Both auctioneers have been putting out the welcome mat for new buyers, in hopes they will give the market new momentum.

And yet to many, the prospect of crossing the threshold of an auction house is daunting. Auctions are seen as havens for tuxedo-clad men and jewel-bedecked women who emerge from limousines to spend millions of dollars on van Goghs -- and do it in a pressure-cooker atmosphere that brooks no morning-after changes of heart.

"Even though I was once an auctioneer, I find that my pulse quickens noticeably when I bid," said Jennifer Vorbach, director of C&M; Arts, a gallery in New York City.

But buying art at auction is easier than it looks -- and worth the effort. Auctions are the art world's wholesale market, and works bought at auction by dealers often turn up on their gallery walls a few days later at two or three times the price.

Down-to-earth prices

What's more, prices for the bulk of auction fare are very down-to-earth. More than half the paintings, furniture, silver, collectibles and other items sold by Sotheby's each year go for less than $2,500.

At Christie's, more than a quarter fetch less than $1,000 and more than half fetch less than $5,000.

All you have to know are a few basics. First, remember that the myths about auctions are just that. You will not buy something with a shrug or a wink. If the auctioneer is uncertain about a gesture, he will ask, "Are you bidding, sir?"

Auctions do progress quickly, though, with up to 100 lots moving off the block in an hour. Before you bid, go to a few sales to feel the rhythm. They are free and open to the public. Only the evening sales, for top-drawer items, are often oversubscribed and thus require tickets, which are also free.

If you're going to bid, your work begins a month before the

auction, when the illustrated catalog is avail

able for purchase. It lists each item, or "lot," for sale, along with a description and the provenance, or history of ownership.

Pay attention to the typeface and the symbols -- each has a meaning, spelled out in the catalog. For example, Christie's guarantees the authorship of lots listed in uppercase type, while Sotheby's guarantees boldface listings.

The catalog also contains a "pre- sale estimate" of the price the work will fetch, based on recent prices of similar works. It's stated as a range. The "reserve" -- the point below which the owner will not sell -- is confidential. By law it must be below or at the low estimate, and it's often around 80 percent of the low.

After picking out the objects of your desire, try to get perspective on their quality and value. Call or visit galleries for advice.

Now you're ready to view the works, which go on exhibition about a week before the sale. Take your catalog and look carefully because all lots are sold as is. Feel free to ask questions of the experts, the Christie's and Sotheby's employees who put the sale together. Make notes.

On the day before the auction, call the expert in charge. He or she will be able to tell you whether others want to buy your lots and in what price range.

You need this information for your next step. Since auction excitement can make you open your wallet wider than you really want to, it's important to write down your top price for every lot you desire. Remember, there are no returns. If you can't stick to your ceiling, you may want to retain an art consultant or dealer to bid for you, but they usually charge a fee.

Getting a numbered paddle comes next. If you have not preregistered at the exhibition or by phone, show up early at the sale and head for the registration desk. To bid, simply raise your paddle or your hand. Once you have the auctioneer's eye, you can switch to a nod.

The bidding starts below the reserve and moves up in standard increments, usually about 10 percent of the last bid. When to jump in is up to you.

Neophytes often get in early, then fade out as the price gets rich.

It's probably better to wait until the early birds have exhausted themselves, then pounce. Very aggressive types occasionally try pre-empt others by keeping their arm high in the air, a tactic that's frowned on.

The auctioneer can bid, too, usually on behalf of people who couldn't be present and submitted bids in writing. Known as "order bids," these offers are the maximum a bidder will pay, and are taken in sequence against bids in the sale room. More controversially, in "chandelier bidding" the auctioneer calls out a fake bid to move the price above the reserve. It's legal up to the reserve.

Since the auctioneer is trying to get the best price, he will often linger a second before bringing down the gavel. To coax one more bid, he may say "fair warning." You can bid until the gavel strikes.

When the lot fails to reach its reserve, the auctioneer will say "pass," or possibly "bought in" or "returned to owner." If any of these items strike your fancy, make a note.

Last chance

After the sale, go to the house expert and make an offer. You might have a deal on the spot. If your bid is below the reserve, the expert will relay your bid to the seller, who will make the decision.

If you won a lot, keep in mind that what you bid, called the hammer price, is not what you will pay. To it are added the buyer's premium (15 percent on the first $50,000 and 10 percent thereafter.) and sales tax.

If you have a preapproved account, you can take your purchase when you pay. If not, you will have to wait until your check clears or your bank or credit card company verifies that you have adequate funds before you can claim your booty. Be quick, though. After a few days, your treasure will go to a warehouse and you will owe storage.

If you cannot attend an auction and don't want to leave a written bid, you can arrange to bid by telephone on 24-hour notice. The auction house will call you about two lots before the one you care about, and the caller will recite the bids on your lot, letting you join in anytime.

A final pointer: you can sometimes save a few dollars near the end of the bidding by cutting the increment, though auctioneers sometimes balk. Say a painting is selling for $100,000 and the auctioneer asks, "Who'll say $110,000?" You can try to get him to accept $105,000.

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