The Young Collector
We’re not lazy people. Trust us. In the past 48 hours we have gone to two grocery stores, the post office, the gas station, the pet store, and the bakery; worked on four upcoming lectures; made the necessary preliminary notes for this column and cranked out 800-plus words; done some editorial work for Prices4Antiques.com (Hollie’s employer); cleaned out the pellet stove and the stovepipe; made two gallons of vegetable soup and eight dozen cookies (to freeze, Andrew); written thank-you notes to all the baby-loving folks in our lives and several letters to great-aunts; done all the weekend chores (sweeping, mopping, round of clean sheets on beds, washed all throw rugs, etc.); done laundry; weeded children’s clothes and reorganized their chest of drawers; watched a movie; read to and played with two small children; and gotten two nights of five-plus consecutive hours of sleep. The lack of sleep has made us a little punchy, so bear with us.
This is a fairly typical weekend—all but the consecutive sleep part. We’re still working the kinks out of that one. So we are not indolent people, but one can see that the aforementioned schedule isn’t the kind of thing that leaves a lot of spare time for perusing auctions, even with
(a)vocations like ours. On-line auctions have, by necessity, been playing a bigger role in our lives as of late.
Now, we know that on-line auctions make some people nervous, similar to an asteroid grazing the atmosphere of the antiques world, but brick-and-mortar auctions aren’t going anywhere, not for a very long time anyway. They are, as all of us who love them know, just too much fun, and they offer too many opportunities for the emotional, tactile, and social aspects of collecting and buying.
But on-line auctions are just so convenient, especially for the generation that made Amazon.com finally turn a profit. As a group, we’re used to buying things this way. Don’t like the big chain grocery store’s recent hike on tea prices? Go home and check Amazon, estimate tea consumption, click a couple of times, and sign up to have it delivered to your house on a regular basis for 10¢ less per bag. You get the idea. We’re not a generation who, as a rule, is going to balk about typing in our credit card number and clicking “Bid Now!”
Andrew has been buying on line since eBay opened its virtual doors in the mid-1990’s. He remembers being able to browse the entire site, every single listing, in about two hours! By the late 1990’s, eBay was working with brick-and-mortar auction houses, directly and then through intermediaries such as ArtFact and LiveAuctioneers, before bailing on that aspect of the business in 2007. That didn’t slow down the buying and selling of old things on eBay, however. Statistics indicate that in just about two years, between 2008 and 2010, the listings in the antiques category of eBay alone increased from approximately 180,000 to 717,000, a 298% increase! And that is just eBay—dozens and dozens of similar companies are out there doing the same thing on smaller scales.
Since then, auction houses have been adjusting to on-line sales without the backing power of eBay, confident that an on-line aspect to sales offers expanded opportunities for the material and for customers. After an initial panicked rush to choose another on-line option in the wake of eBay’s withdrawal from the marketplace five years ago, things have stabilized again. Many auction houses have decided that on-line bidding is working so well that for some sales, having an on-line-only sale would be the way to go. (This includes Garth’s, Andrew’s employer, which has its inaugural on-line-only auction this month.) Because a number of those intermediary companies have launched their own on-line platforms, but none of them have attracted anything close to the numbers of visitors that eBay offered, some auction houses have even decided to eliminate the middleman and offer their own on-line systems of bidding to customers.
So, what’s the difference? And why on line and certainly why on line only? Typically, on-line auctions hold bidding open for a predetermined period of time and lots end, either individually or in groups, at a specific time. How they end varies between two primary methods. First there is a firm closing, where the auction ends exactly at that time and where “sniping” or dropping in at the last possible second to bid is common. This means bidding early isn’t necessarily all it takes. You need to be watching and have fast fingers, because sniping is such big business that software companies have actually invented applications to place bids in the final seconds. The second method is the rolling closing, where the auction is scheduled to end at a certain time but continues on indefinitely until a set period of time (often five minutes) has elapsed with no additional bidding activity.
Then, of course, there are the on-line bidding platforms for traditional live auctions, where bidders have the option of leaving a bid to be executed by the auction software on their behalf (no worries about “chandelier bidding”) and also the option of watching the auction on their computer and clicking to bid live. This is naturally the closest approximation to actually attending a live auction (and you pay for that, typically about 3% over and above the house’s buyer’s premium), but it makes us a bit nervous. We’re not only dependent, as one would be even in the salesroom, on our reflexes and the auctioneer’s acknowledgement of the bid, but also on a chain of technological assistance––one’s computer speed, one’s Internet connection, the lengthy chain of connections overseen by an Internet service provider, the auctioneer’s Internet connection, and computer speed, etc.
Incidentally, this last method, for any dissatisfied customers out there, is absolutely the hardest job on auction day. The people executing bids feel as though they can’t blink for hours, because they not only have to pay attention to the auctioneer and the floor crowd, as an absentee bid representative might, but also must be able to keep up with three different things happening on their computer screen, all while being ready to shout “Bid!” while simultaneously clicking to accept a bid. (Hollie can attest that this has literally given her nightmares in the nights before and during an auction.)
On-line-only sales are just that. There is no salesroom full of people bidding against you, just an employee on the other end of the computer connection receiving bids and acting as a virtual auctioneer. On-line auctions work well for almost any kind of object, but on-line-only auctions can work especially well for small, easily shipped items and for large collections of very similar material that might otherwise struggle to maintain an audience. Only the very dedicated will sit through 500 lots of movie posters, carte de visite photographs, or wall pockets.
This can be unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory for many buyers (who, for their own reasons, don’t want to sit through 500 lots of movie posters, cdv photographs, or wall pockets), but really, there are just a few rules, most of which apply to “regular” auctions as well.
First, read the policies, all the policies. Yes, all that annoying fine print stuff that you figure will never really apply to you. This is, by the way, a must for all auctions, but it’s even more crucial when you’re not there in person and not examining an object in person. You’ll really want to be familiar with the guarantee and the return policies. As Hollie’s dad told her about her first car, “It’s not a prom dress. You can’t just take it back if you don’t like it.”
Next, ask questions, lots and lots of questions. Andrew and his Garth’s coworkers answer hundreds of questions before an auction, and they’re glad to do it. A well-informed buyer is far more likely to be a happy buyer. And, in this case, ask questions you think you might not need to ask—for example, confirm the woods, the condition, the wear, the estimated age, etc. Look at it this way: when you ask questions, you’re essentially getting a second opinion, a valuable thing to have before making a big decision. The first opinion is that of the cataloger, but the second opinion often comes from someone with fresh eyes. Important things can be discovered.
Finally, be as prepared as you can be. On-line auction catalogs usually show up on the Web sites about two weeks before a sale, so look things over in advance. (This is one of the disadvantages you accept when you aren’t sitting in the crowd—you run a greater risk when you bid on something just because it’s going cheap.) Check back periodically as well. If you leave a bid through the traditional process, an auction house will often call you to let you know if anything else has come to light, but because of the blind process on-line bidding platforms offer, there’s no way to know who you are or how to contact you, so the auction house has to settle for updating the on-line catalog with any changes. For example, if someone discovers a repaired foot 36 hours before the sale, that information should be in the on-line catalog. (We say “should.” It’s always a good question to ask: What about updates and changes?) And for your own sake, when it comes to bidding, have a sense of where you want to go before bidding starts. We’re never sure which is worse, getting caught up in the moment and spending more than you meant to, or hesitating to “pull the trigger” and kicking yourself for not going after what you wanted.
It’s hard to convey to folks outside the business just how crazy things are on the day of an auction. There are papers spilling out of the fax, dozens and dozens of e-mails, multiple phone lines ringing off the hook, and while the whole staff may have the basics on the on-line bidding platform, it’s not unusual for this kind of technology to be the domain of just a couple of people who really know the ins and outs. They’ll have their hands full on auction days, and, even with the best of intentions, simply may not have time for a lengthy conversation about just which button to click and just what option you need to select on the drop-down menu in the upper right corner, for instance. It might be a good idea to register for an auction you’re not particularly interested in and watch the process, so you’ll know where to sign in, where to click, and how to read all the information on the screen.
On-line bidding can be awesome! We love on-line bidding and have bid in hundreds of on-line auctions, sometimes on our laptops, sometimes on our smartphones while traveling (no bidding while driving!), and a significant percentage of the antiques in our house were purchased on line or at least seen there first. So we urge you to log in! After all, there are all sorts of interesting objects and great buys, and the convenience really frees you up to do other things. You can bid while on the road, bid while cooking dinner, bid while eating ice cream, and bid while sitting around in your underwear (or so we’ve heard).
We welcome ideas, tips, criticisms, and questions regarding “The Young Collector.” Andrew and Hollie may be reached by e-mail <firstname.lastname@example.org>, on Facebook (www.facebook.com/TheYoungAntiquesCollectors), via their blog (www.youngantiquecollectors.com), or by writing The Young Collector, c/o Maine Antique Digest, PO Box 1429, Waldoboro, ME 04572.
Originally published in the April 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest