On a Saturday morning in Towson, about three dozen people are milling around the showroom at Alex Cooper Auctioneers, kicking the tires on the merchandise that’s about to go under the hammer. A Heriz carpet handmade in Persia from 1915, a Lalique vase, oil paintings by Antoine Blanchard, a Tiffany lamp, a jukebox, a mahogany sideboard, and a mid-century modern Florence Knoll sofa are just a some of the items up for grabs.
Many of the folks in attendance are dealers who will pick up the best buys to mark up and display in their own showrooms. But for the discerning homeowner with an eye for quality, an aversion to the homogeneity of mainstream stores, and a love of the chase, auctions are a great place to score stylish home goods—some quite valuable—and often at a bargain.
“There’s a competitiveness to it and an exhilaration you get when two or three people want the same thing as you,” says Dennis Hockman, 42, who owns a home near Catonsville with his wife, Karin. “And it becomes an immediate negotiation, where you’re trying to figure out what your threshold is versus the other person’s threshold. There’s a rush when you do auctions, because it’s not like, ‘Here’s the price tag,’ and you want it or you don’t. The price tag is always changing until the hammer falls.”
Hockman and his wife prefer eclectic décor and wanted to circumvent the pricier antique malls by going straight to the source. Through auctions, they’ve picked up an early 1800s blanket chest, paintings, pottery, and side chairs. And auctions are pretty easy to find—Hockman checks the listings in the paper, is on various e-mail lists, and has even pulled off the road when he’s seen a sign advertising an estate sale.
For first-timers, though, a real, live auction can be intimidating. Maybe it’s all that fast chatter, or the image of the hammer hovering with the sale of your precious item hanging in the balance, or the weight of the numbered paddle in your hand, but there’s an immediacy to live auctions that can really get your blood flowing.
The fast talking, called the “auctioneers chant,” serves two purposes. “It’s both to excite the crowd and to keep the sale moving,” says Paul Cooper, vice president of Alex Cooper Auctioneers. “There’s nothing worse than a sale that drags.”
At auction, there’s a ton of merchandise to be sold in a short time. Each item—or group of items—is called a “lot.” One could literally furnish and accessorize an entire home after one day at auction. With so much stuff to sell, no one is going to dally, especially for a novice. And while most reputable auction houses will do their best to authenticate and honestly represent their merchandise, there is an element of “buyer beware” when purchasing. Which is why it pays to do a lot of research prior to sale day.
The advent of sites like eBay has taken much of the auctioning world into cyberspace, but at a live sale, there’s the benefit of being able to see the merchandise first-hand, to open the drawers, turn over the vase, or sit on the chair and make sure it’s comfortable. Auction-goers are encouraged to attend preview days, which are held in advance of a sale.
If you see something you simply can’t live without and you know you’ll never see again, how much is it worth to you?
“Don’t bid without looking at something,” advises Rick Opfer, president of Richard Opfer Auctioneering. “Don’t sit in the audience and think, ‘That’s a bargain’ and buy it, because it’s only after that you’ll see the flaw that everyone else already saw. That’s probably the biggest newbie mistake: buying something without examining it.”
The preview is a good time to suss out the dealers, too. If there’s a crowd of interested people around an item, chances are it’s going to be a popular item, as dealers will only buy things they know they can resell at a mark-up. Right now, traditional furniture, such as Victorian and country styles, has lost popularity, as have crystal and hand-painted vases. The sale of silver pieces depends on market value, while mid-century modern furniture and Asian porcelain are very trendy, as are Danish modern pieces. With a little eavesdropping, you can also gain valuable intel on a piece.
The appeal of auctions isn’t just that you get to find an item you want and bid what you feel is its fair market value. It’s also a chance to expand your aesthetic. Maybe you never knew you liked hand-painted Herend figurines because you never saw them at the local mall. Or maybe you discovered an antique French carriage clock that was just the thing you never knew you needed for your mantel.
“The downside is that I might not have what you want when you want it,” says Opfer, “but it’s a forum where you’ll find stuff you may not find anywhere else. I’ve been doing this for close to 50 years, and I still see amazing things I’ve never seen before.”
When you find that certain piece you absolutely must have and you’ve examined its condition at the preview and are satisfied, it’s still easy to get swept up in the moment. “If you’re a novice, get a figure in your mind of what you’re willing to bid,” says Cooper. “Make your list of items and set your prices before, so you don’t need to make that calculation in real time. I do 100 lots an hour, which means you have a short time to decide what you’re going to do.”
As far as bargains go, price is as much in the eye of the beholder as it is in the hand of the paddle holder. If you see something you simply can’t live without and you know you’ll never see again, how much is it worth to you? If someone else wants it, suddenly fair market value is on the rise. If no one wants it, the bargain can be yours. Opfer says he’s sold things for $5 and things for $5 million. Anything that’s best-in-show in its category—whether it be a piece of brown furniture or a Persian rug—will usually grab top dollar. There are plenty of deals to be had, but “bargain” is a relative term.
“Don’t let emotion take over, this isn’t a game where you’re trying to beat everyone else in the auction by spending more than them,” says Hockman. “You’re trying to get good value on something you’re going to use.”
Most auctions charge a buyer’s premium (a service charge on top of the selling price) of anywhere from 15 to 25 percent. Money is due at the time of purchase and some auction houses require that items be hauled away that day. Alex Cooper and Opfer’s will allow buyers to leave an absentee bid and, depending on the sale, buyers can phone bid or bid online along with the live auction.
For a real, no-holds barred, wild-ride auction, the brave or the curious can head to the Crumpton Auction just outside of Chestertown. Since 1961, Crumpton has held an auction every week, selling 3,000 to 6,000 lots on sale day. Merchandise ranges from the practical (Adirondack chairs, bureaus, lawnmowers) and the eclectic (pinball machines, Lucite tables, old wagon wheels) to the downright odd (a stuffed fox). There are no phone bids, no buyer’s premiums (Crumpton takes a commission on each sale), and no preview days, though you can check out merchandise on their Facebook page. And the Crumpton staff advises you to wear comfortable shoes and be weather-prepared—if it’s raining, it will be muddy. And it’s a sale barn, so there’s no A.C.
Whether you go to browse or feel ready to pick up the paddle and jump right in, auctions are worth a visit. You never know when the grand piano, Waterford crystal stemware, or stuffed wildlife you can’t live without will go up for bid.
Plus, there will always be a story behind the purchase—and the one that got away.
“The weirdest thing I didn’t win at auction was an antique Colonial-era handmade chess and checker board,” Hockman recalls. “I saw it later at an antique store for three times the price.
“But the coolest thing I actually succeeded in bringing home was a Herman Maril painting. He was a Maryland modernist artist whose works are in the Smithsonian and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It was pretty cool to get something affordable that could have been hanging at the MOMA.”
Do I Hear $10,000?
Here’s a list of some of the auction houses in the region:
Alex Cooper Auctioneers
908 York Rd., Towson
Alexander Historical Auctions
98 Bohemia Ave., Ste. 2
American Heritage Auction Service
13331 Pennsylvania Ave., Ste. A
Baltimore Book Co.
34 Cedar Ave., Towson
2017 Dudley Corners Rd., Crumpton
Michael Fox International Inc.
11425 Cronhill Dr., Ste A
Mosby & Co. Auctions
5714 Industry Ln., Ste. A
Richard Opfer Auctioneering
1919 Greenspring Dr.
660 Kenilworth Dr.