Knowing Your Way Around the Block

By filling your house with smart antique buys, you can show off your good taste and save the earth in the bargain.

Even as marketing director at Boston’s Skinner auction house, Catherine Riedel found it took years to work up the courage to bid on anything. Once she did, though, she began to realize what many dedicated auction-goers already know: Filling a home with previously owned one-of-a-kinds is as good for the environment as it is for your décor. “We live in what’s essentially a disposable society,” she says, “but some antiques were crafted with such care that they’re meant to last lifetimes.”


Riedel outfitted her former home, an 18th-century Colonial, with everything from a 1960s Danish fruitwood table to a ceremonial Indian feathered basket; when she moved to a 1940s-era house in Weston last month, she kept those two items but sent much of her furniture back to Skinner to be resold, giving her the chance to purchase new (old) pieces. Along the way, she’s learned a few things:

Prepping for the Sale

Riedel recommends scoping out the lots (auction-speak for the items for sale) during the preview, usually held several days before the auction. There, buyers can see and handle the items, while on-site experts answer questions about pricing, history, and materials.

Understanding the Value

Just because a piece is antique doesn’t mean it’s valuable, though age is often a major consideration. The pedigree of the item is also important: Something made as recently as the 1950s or ’60s can bring in a hefty sum if it belonged to a celebrity or was crafted by a famous designer.

Bidding Like a Pro

During the auction, lots will be presented in the order they’re listed in the catalog. Pay close attention: Bidding can move at a frantic pace—Skinner runs through an average of 100 lots each hour.

Shelling out the Cash

Though it’s the big sales that make headlines, most auction items are relatively affordable, since bidders are paying wholesale prices alongside dealers and collectors. But keep in mind the additional fees that auction houses charge winning bidders: At Skinner, the buyer’s premium is 17.5 percent on items up to $80,000, and 10 percent on anything higher than that.

For a guide to Greater Boston auction houses, click here.