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Going, Going, Gone!

Before Auction Fever Sweeps You Away, Make Sure You Know What You're Buying
Andrew Decker
From the Print Edition:
Michael Richards, Sep/Oct 97

(continued from page 1)

Nightmares like these are infrequent--the lightning strike, statistically, is nearly insignificant. But no one wants to be the unfortunate statistical anomaly. Some collectors, and nearly all dealers, say that these kinds of stories underscore the greatest flaw in buying at auction. The auction houses are agents, and some of the less reputable ones offer no liability for title (though, by law, they must in New York), provide little or no guarantee that what they've described is what they're selling, and make no binding representations about condition.

Then, there's the bidding. "One more?" It's a question auctioneers often pose to buyers about to drop out of the bidding. (As if one is enough.) Many people, having breached the price limit they've set for themselves, find their egos lifting the paddle again. And again. They want to win.

A few years ago, Christopher Hartop fell in love. The object of his desire was a poster for sale at a small country auction house in upstate New York, where Hartop has a weekend house. The poster wasn't famous, or expensive. No original King Kong image, or Alphonse Mucha woman dripping in Art Nouveau garb--the kind of things collected by people around the globe. The poster showed an old tow path along the old Delaware-and-Hudson Canal, near his country house, and he wanted it. He figured he'd get it for "around $20 or $30--something like that," Hartop recalls.

It was just the thought another man had, and before Hartop knew it, he was in the midst of a bidding battle, with the bids flying back and forth like a Ping-Pong ball as the bidding passed $100, then $200. Hartop won the lot, but doesn't remember exactly what he paid. "It was two hundred and something dollars," he says, far more than he wanted to pay. An insignificant amount in the world of multimillion-dollar auctions, but Hartop is not your usual bidder. He works at Christie's, where he's charged with finding, researching and presenting other people's silver objects. He's also an auctioneer, whose main goal is to help people remember just how much they want something. At the country auction, Hartop says, "I made all the mistakes a beginner makes. I didn't have a clear idea of what it was worth, of how rare these things were." Yet his embarrassment over the bidding war has been tempered with time. Talking about his poster now, he says, "I still love it. The price seems like chicken feed now. It happens to everyone."

And sometimes that extra bid makes all the difference. Paula Webster, a publicist in New York, recalls going after "a pair of beautiful bronze lamps, full of body. I paid something like $150 for the pair. Maybe $250 for the pair. And I was just delirious that I got them--I couldn't stand it. I always felt for another $25 I got this and the other person didn't, and it was a triumphant kind of feeling. It's just delirium inducing. It's a kind of excitement that's just not available in other places. There's just something about it. Maybe it's the risk-taking, or the unknown."

Or, simply, the rush of winning. That particular kind of excitement and the lure of a bargain are what make auctions so popular. It's a taut, exalting process, filled with inherent tensions. The seller hopes for a high price. The buyer looks for a bargain. Two people want the same thing, which is unique, rare or, at the least, no longer being made. And, of course, there is the tension between cost and desire felt by the bidder.

Exciting. And yet most of the time, so dull. Hartop says that unless he's the auctioneer, "I find auctions boring." Seasoned auction shoppers bring a book or knitting or a crossword puzzle to get them through the countless things that come up before the auctioneer gets to the one thing they want. If they're price junkies, they might follow the bidding on each lot, jotting down prices in their catalogues, storing away the information for comparative shopping later on.

And yet, whether you're a serious collector or casual shopper, auctions are indispensable. Even though auction houses like to tell sellers that they get retail prices, they usually don't. Many of the buyers at Christie's or Sotheby's, and many of the buyers of finer things at country auctions, are dealers, who take their prizes back to their stores where you can buy them at a markup.

Often, too, auction prices are cheaper than what you pay at retail stores for new objects. Hartop's colleagues at the less pricey Christie's East sell silver teapots for hundreds of dollars, while new ones bring thousands at Tiffany's. The same is true for engagement rings, paintings, European furniture or scores of other categories that stimulate the billion-dollar auction trade.

Quality and style are other reasons to buy antiques, which are often simply better made, or more appealing, than their contem-porary counterparts. Assuming it's in decent shape, a 1920s chest of drawers that has fluting and inlay and the intangible glow of patina might go for $1,000 at auction, but a fine reproduction will cost more and still not be as well made.

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