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.

By Rachel Levitt | Boston Magazine |

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.

Plug in Like a Paddle Prodigy

Yes, humorless blue-hairs still rule the resale scene, but the advent of eBay and other online auction sites has lowered the median age of bidders substantially. Which, in turn, has changed the game. “Now young people are everywhere with their smartphones, doing their research online, so they know exactly what things are worth,” says South Shore resident adam brunsell, below, who at 22 picked up part of a Maxwell auto at auction and flipped it on eBay for a tidy profit. Eight years later, he’s still dealing every chance he gets, using the Internet to make savvy bids-—and thousands of dollars annually. One recent coup: a Smokey Bear lunchbox bought at auction for $5 and resold online for $735.

Photo by Todd Dionne. 

The Best Local Auctions
Our seven favorites—including one to keep in your pocket for July.

BROOKLINE AUCTION GALLERY At this flea market dealer’s mecca about an hour’s drive north, funky finds range from Tiffany silver and vintage cookie jars to antique license plates. Recent sales include a 19th-century oyster bucket for $1,000 and a Lionel model trolley for $11,000. 1/3, 32 Procter Hill Rd. (Rte. 130), Brookline, NH, 603-673-4474, brooklineauctiongallery.com.

GROGAN & COMPANY Owned by a Sotheby’s graduate and Oriental-carpet expert, this refined house is known for seasonal estate sales that occasionally set records. Among the precious icons are more-affordable goodies, like a French marble mantel clock for under $300. Fine Oriental rug and carpet sale, 1/12, 22 Harris St., Dedham, 781-461-9500, groganco.com.

KAMINSKI AUCTIONS A diverse set of North Shore arts and antiques dealers, collectors, and retail buyers keeps prices reasonable for a tony selection of antiques, rare books, jewelry, and art culled from distinguished New England estates. 1/31–2/1, both at Woodman’s of Essex, 121 Main St., Essex; Kaminski Auctions, 978-927-2223, kaminskiauctions.com.

South Shore auction hounds frequent this weekly sale, which specializes in unloading whole house contents, from rugs, antiques, and porcelain to choice knickknacks. 1/7, 1/14, 1/21, and 1/28, 476 S. Franklin St., Holbrook, 781-767-5255, kelleyauctions.net.

SKINNER’S DISCOVERY Objects that don’t fit into Skinner’s main auctions (or didn’t sell there) go out to Bolton for a once-a-month two-day sale. Sample wares: rare books, gilded mirrors, Limoges china, Victorian furniture. 1/21–1/22, 357 Main St., Bolton, 978-779-6241, skinnerinc.com.

TENT SALES Most newspapers list ad hoc estate auctions in their classifieds section. Usually held in a tent on the front lawn, these sales attract a motley mix of dealers, neighbors, and curiosity seekers, keeping prices the lowest around. But they rarely have a preview; you’ll have to just show up. For weekly listings, check out auctionzip.com.

DECOYS UNLIMITED This annual specialty sale draws the world’s most serious collectors of decoys and carved birds—and is such a staff favorite we couldn’t resist mentioning it now. If paying $48,300 for a carved Chipman plover makes perfect sense to you, don’t miss it. 7/12–7/14 at the Cape Codder Resort and Spa, 1225 Iyannough Rd., Hyannis; Decoys Unlimited, 508-362-2766, decoysunlimitedinc.com.


IMPRESSIVE BILL: Carved in the early 1900s, this pintail drake went for $69,000 at a Decoys Unlimited auction.

Get Your Own House In Order  
One person’s trash is another person’s treasure. Here’s how to tell the difference.

Not every ancient knickknack collecting dust in your attic is going to boast a museum-worthy provenance. For each surprise Hawaiian koa wood bowl worth 20 grand, there are months’ worth of mind-numbing Antiques Roadshow outtakes of duds that didn’t quite pan out.

So how do you know which is which? Call in the experts. While the big houses cherry-pick from fancy estates, other auctioneers cast a wider net. Like Marge Kelley of Kelley Auctions, who gets some of her goods via full-service clean-outs for people moving, downsizing, or dealing with an inherited property.

Equipped with movers, a 13-foot truck, a dumpster, lots of boxes, and a label machine, Kelley (that’s her at right) can empty a 4,000-square-foot house in days. To offset the labor costs, she “squeezes the last penny” out of the contents through weekly auctions, relying on her star appraiser’s ability to spot the treasures among the junk, which gets separated into three piles—Trash, Donation, and To Auction—a procedure familiar to anyone who watches shows like TLC’s Clean Sweep.

Finding riches this way takes perseverance and experience. A blanket chest full of old sheets once yielded Kelley a 19th-century Japanese sword with an ivory hilt that sold for $300; on another house call, she found a first-generation Stickley desk that ultimately netted $214,500. “Every day I play diplomat, psychiatrist, and mother to my clients,” she says. “But in the end, the house is empty and I hand them a check. And everyone’s happy.”

Kelley also spends time securing homes for things she can’t sell. She makes hefty donations to Amvets, the Weymouth Furniture Bank, the Salvation Army, and individual families in need. “If it takes me an extra 10 minutes to make sure it doesn’t end up in a landfill somewhere, it’s worth it.” Kelley Auctions, 476 S. Franklin St., Holbrook, 781-767-5255, kelleyauctions.net.


Photos by Todd Dionne (top) and Eric Kulin (middle).

Learn To Talk Like The Pros

Like any business, auctions have specialized lingo, and knowing the vocabulary has its perks. Beyond utter basics like lot (the grouping of objects offered for sale as a single unit) and proxy bidding (letting an auctioneer bid up to a preset price in your stead), there’s all-out-battle slang. Bidding war you no doubt know, but what about sniping: placing a crushing, last-second bid to swoop in and steal an item? Also watch out for invisible sellers, auctioneers who covertly sell off their own belongings; deadbeat bidders, people who don’t pay for an item they win; and the most ominous of all, bid jumpers—experienced buyers who bid really high, really early not only to save time but also to scare off the newbies. -Alyson  Sheppard

Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2008/12/going-once-going-twice/