During this past year of isolation and shopping limitations, a lot of design enthusiasts have learned just what great hunting grounds online auctions can be.
Between the extremes of eBay and Sotheby’s lie a plethora of online auction houses with huge inventories, mostly furnishings and collectibles from estates and middle- to upper-middle class households that are moving or downsizing. Furnishings offered usually range from gently used vintage items to mid-century pieces. In the latter category, you might well find items by such manufacturers as Knoll, Broyhill, Drexel, Herman Miller and Baker at a third of the price they’re listed at on designer retail sites.
But, of course, you’ve got to know what you’re doing when you go hunting online. That’s the word of warning from Steve Shapiro and Pat Stambaugh, whose Lancaster home is almost entirely furnished with auction finds. They have been auction hounds for many years, mostly attending in person prior to the pandemic, but switching to online bidding in the past year. They go online several times a week, acknowledging that this format has broadened their range. Online bidding has made it easy to “shop” in other areas around the country.
Research what you want to buy at auction
Shapiro and Stambaugh recommend that auction novices do their research before dipping in their toes.
“Educate yourself,” Shapiro says. “When things open up again, go to museums and antique fairs, but meanwhile check out the catalogs that auction houses post prior to sales.”
Those listings include photos, descriptions and the estimated market value of each item. It’s a good way to get a sense of specific households’ specialities, as well as what types of pieces speak most to you.
“For example, Americana is our special interest, but that covers a lot of ground,” Shapiro says. “We collect weather vanes, Amish baby quilts, Shaker boxes, painted furniture, portraits, stoneware, pottery, straw hats, marble objects, statues and vintage toys.”
The couple have collected for over 30 years and joke that soon their six-bedroom house will split at the seams. While their collections certainly are abundant, they are curated and grouped carefully. Shapiro says collectors should group like items together by type and color to control clutter and strengthen the presentation.
“Don’t spread pieces of a collection all over the place,” Shapiro says. “You lose the impact. Having said that, our weather vanes are so large they won’t all fit in one place. So some are removed from their stands and mounted on walls, but three very large ones hoof it on the dining room table.”
Study up on how auctions work
Once you’ve settled on the type of things you’d like to bid on, research is in order. Live Auctioneers is a site that lists prices paid at auctions for specific items. The site also features a “Near Me” map so buyers can check out what auction houses are within a range of 90 miles from their home.
Shapiro says you will be surprised how many there are. His and Stambaugh’s favorites include Horst and Hess in the Lancaster area; Pook & Pook, Downingtown; Kamelot, Philadelphia; Skinner, Boston; and New Haven Auctions, New Haven, Connecticut.
“But keep in mind that these are our particular favorites because we concentrate on the Americana genre,” Shapiro says.
Should you, as an auction wannabe, worry about “accidentally” buying a vase for thousands of dollars? Stambaugh says no. Since most auctions require shoppers to go through at least two steps before they can even bid, that would be highly unlikely.
However, Karl Boltz, of Boltz Auction Company, Lancaster, suggests that novices watch a few auctions before getting into the action. And practice navigating the auction site in advance, too, he says. He also recommends that buyers take advantage of in-person previews.
“In the weeks leading up to the sale, most auction houses have a preview,” he says. “That way a buyer can check for scratches on furniture and look at the colors of rugs and upholstered pieces. Sometimes a color is poorly shown in a photograph and the buyer winds up disappointed. So I highly recommend that buyers make an appointment to preview whatever item interests them. Fine art auctions featuring top Lancaster artists is one of our specialties, and art really should be checked out in person.”
Boltz also wants auction goers to know that the closing bid is never the final price. Most houses tack on a “buyer’s premium” of 15 to 30 percent, and sometimes there’s sales tax, too.
And one final word of advice from Shapiro: “Only buy what you’re absolutely crazy about. That’s our principle. Because of that, there isn’t a single item in our house that we don’t love looking at.”