Going Once! Going Twice! Going… for the First Time?

The Enlightened Auction-Goer: The top local sales, first-timer strategies, and how to turn your junk into someone else’s treasure.

If for you the word auction conjures up stifling decorum and snooty sixtysomethings in furs, you’re missing out on the best bargains in town. Auctions are, in fact, the great equalizers in the resale world. Rich and lowly alike show up in scuffed shoes and parkas, on the prowl for instant heirlooms and outrageous deals. Nest eggs, too: During economic downturns, savvy investors historically buy up rare objects in lieu of stocks. So can you. Here’s how.


Tips For The Budding Bidder

Everything you need to know before traveling down the road to secondhand riches.

[sidebar]SIX-FIGURE ARTWORKS MAKE TERRIFIC BROCHURES. Don’t be intimidated by the big-ticket goods the auction houses hype on their websites. At most sales, the exceptional and the affordable are offered back to back. A tiny art deco drawing may prompt international phone bids that soar to astounding levels (as with the sweet Aubrey Beardsley sold at Skinner last fall for $213,300), while a gilt-tooled, leather-bound set of 19th-century tomes might be snagged for less than $60.

FEAR NOT THE DEALER. Auctions attract a focused crowd of resellers seeking undervalued, often highly specific items. That leaves plenty of choices for regular folks who arrive without an agenda. At one recent Skinner’s Discovery auction, a quirky clutch of vintage matchboxes sparked a bidding war that finally broke somewhere north of $1,000, but there was no interest in a lovely Empire mahogany-veneer writing desk—at $107, cheaper than an Ikea knockoff. The same session saw an inexplicable frenzy over a 20-inch-high carved-wood spoon rack, which eventually went for a spendy $5,333, a sum that could have bought enough furniture to fill a two-bedroom condo.

Obsessing over an item can lead to passionate (read: reckless) bidding. Learn to let go. Auctions move roughly 100 lots an hour, providing ample opportunity to impulse-buy your way to a fully decked-out house with or without that jaunty Tiffany-style floor lamp (like the one that recently sold at Kaminski for a vertiginous $4,000).

All you can tell from a promotional image is how photogenic an item is. So if you’re tempted by the art-directed tease, inspect the real deal at the preview. That vanity may look darling online, but wait till you get a whiff of the mothball scent.

SHOW UP, SAVE BIG. Many live auctions now have a cyberspace counterpart, but avoid the temptation to stay home. Waiting to bid until the final seconds—something you can only do effectively in person—is the surest way to save a bundle.