PHOTOGRAPHY: COLLINS KILGORE
My favorite activity is to browse online auctions across the country. My second favorite is to investigate the estate where the pieces came from, research the maker or origin of the furniture I view and later see what the item ended up selling for. As a design enthusiast, I have learned so much about the interiors world through countless hours spent scrolling Live Auctioneers – the leading curator of auctions around the globe. I personally prefer Live Auctioneers when browsing over similar sites such as Bidsquare and Invaulable.
Right now, some interesting things are occurring in the world of online auctioneering. Product shortages, long lead times and a fresh appreciation for the home sparked by the pandemic, have lead to auctions becoming more mainstream. As a result, the demand is so much greater, increasing the amount of “eyes” watching the auctions, and leading to price increases. Three years ago you literally could have scooped up a Bunny Williams custom upholstered bed (seen here) for less than a $1,000 but today these steals are becoming harder to find.
Due to the current landscape and the accessibility made possible through curators such as Live Auctioneers, online auctions provide a new frontier for design lovers across the world, and are no longer reserved for high-end decorators or dealers. I was recently in a bidding war over some stunning Janus outdoor furniture that I would never in a million years be able to afford (if I walked into their showroom), but it fell in my price range when the sale started. However, it sadly surpassed my allotment over time and I later spotted the set in a new Thomas Jayne decorated home in Charleston. That is who I was bidding against and who ultimately ended up “winning”. I had to chuckle at in hindsight, because not only did I realize I that I never stood a chance to begin with, but that I had my eye on the same items as Thomas Jayne and his team. We all have the same access and with a trained eye, you can find incredible pieces at insane prices – it’s all about the hunt!
During a recent Millea Brothers sale (a great auction house source) in New Jersey, pieces from homes designed by the likes of Juan Pablo Molyneux sold for next to nothing. You know it had to have been someone stylish and with deep pockets who had the mean to hire Juan, aka Tory Burch’s preferred decorator. Homeowners hiring designers of this caliber, spare no expense on furnishings and the fact that these pieces that originally cost thousands to make, not to mention the multiple hours of design time spent brining them to life, is suddenly accessible to you or me in South Georgia, -for less than a Hill House Home nap dress– is thrilling! These are the sort of finds that make my heart skip a beat and give me a euphoric rush.
Over time I have been educating my husband on the retail prices of items (and then take into account the decorator’s time, upholstery, refurbishing, and shipping) and he is also now 100% on the auction train as well. Even with an increase in demand in the auction world, there are still many gems to be found and an undeniable difference in quality and price, compared to shopping retail. Besides, who wants a reproduction when you can have the real thing from from a fabulous Upper East Side Townhome for half the price?! If you’re interested in the auction world, I’ve included a few tips below to get started.
For any questions, please feel free to DM me via Instagram and follow as I’ll share notable sales periodically.
Tips for Finding Great Deals on Online Auctions:
- Download the LiveAuctioneers app and head straight to the site on your browser to create an account. For reference, Live Auctioneers is the leading curator of estate sales and auctions around the world. There are other similar online sources such as Invaluable and BidSquare but I personally prefer LiveAuctioneers.
- Use the “find auctions” drop down to find sales near you. It is helpful to know about those around you for two reasons: you will have the ability to “preview” the sites up for sale if you choose and you can escape any cross-country moving expenses.
- Use specific search terms on the website’s browser. Play around with your queries by searching not only by designer, but by decade, material, color, or print to find the most interesting things to you. For example, you can search “Bunny Williams” and all items Bunny has dropped off to the auction house to sell as well as those from homes designed by her team will populate.
- Update your settings so every time a particular item or designer you’ve been eyeing goes up for sale, you are notified! I probably have 100 saved searches and it is so helpful to know when these items are online whether in my backyard or across the country. A few examples of my current saved searches include, but are not limited to: Billy Baldwin, Tom Corbin, Parish Hadley, Christopher Spitzmiller, and Bunny Williams.
- Use the site for price research. Are you looking for twelve Herend dinner plates in a particular pattern? You can always check out what the exact and similar items have gone for in the past as a reference point before you bid. I don’t really use Invaluable but will give them props on this tool they created to help make researching products easy; see, HERE.
- Educate yourself on designers, fabrics, and styles of furniture. I would recommend reading design magazines, coffee table books, interviews online; follow your favorite tastemakers on social; and, go to trade shows, showrooms, and conferences to meet or see the brands in-person. If you are reading Veranda and are drawn to a particular product, search for it in your site browser to see who has sold it in the past and for how much. You can also then save that search in your settings so you are notified next time it is available. The more you play on the site, the more you will learn. For me, there are certain designers such as McGuire and Maitland Smith that I see ALL the time. I am now much more aware of their style, collections, and specialities. Outside of the above, I also play around on KRB a fair amount to educate myself on various styles, design wording, and product. I’m always learning from the likes of Katie Armour, Rita Konig, and Kate Brodsky.
- Know the market and what is available in the masses, much like you would in physical sales. You can find china, silver, or crystal in droans. If you are like me and appreciate these items, you can find them for a steal across the internet for pennies on the dollar. Also, a lot of people are not as into brown furniture these days so you can find lots of pretty quality mahogany for less than ever before. I love it and tend to take the stance that there is more for me thanks to transforming tastes.
- Measure before buying! This is something I struggle with but make sure to measure before you start bidding. All dimensions should be located in the description under each item. If not, you can contact the auction house and they should be able to pass along to you while on the line.
- Handy friends and family help. Beware of the labor cost of putting together and transporting thrifting finds. If nervous about shipping costs, e-mail the preferred list of shippers (found on all auction house websites) prior with the lot items in consideration and your address for quotes. This will enable you to have a better idea of the overall price per item if you were to move forward. If the shippers seem too high, try googling other contacts and/or reach out to a designer friend in the area to see who they use.
- Inquire about the terms of the sale for the items “passed on” during auction.
- Be patient. Similar to physical estate sales, you have to be patient and be okay with some mistakes.
- Shop smart geographically. If your time is tight, I would concentrate on NYC, Palm Beach, Greenwich, and potentially Detroit. Those are the four cities where I think some of the best items have come from.
- Research the home! For online estate sales, they will typically tell you the property where the item came from. If you google the families name, you can sometimes learn about the couple, their chosen decorator, and see additional photos inside of their home. I have scored some incredible pieces that are now in our home from everyone from the old CEO of Leaman Brothers to Judieth Lieber to Katie Ridder.
- The beginning of the auction sets the tone. If an auction comes from a single property owner, you can tell if the sale is going to be any good on the first page of an online sale. Vice versa if it is good! You will have an idea of the families taste off the bat and if it is close to yours.
- Beware of the attached fees. Another fee to know about is the “buyer’s premium,” which is essentially a cut that goes to the house (to, you know, pay their employees). Twenty-five to 30 percent is pretty standard, but calculate that out before you set your top bid. There are also repairs to think about if the piece isn’t in tip-top condition. You might be clicking the “Bid $150” button, but with $50 shipping + $37 buyer’s fee + a $400 reupholstery job, that’s actually a $637 purchase.
- Popularity and pricing. Sometimes some good ole-fashioned PR has a lot to do with the sale pricing. If the auction is getting a fair amount of buzz, the sale will have more eyes on it and more people will be “bidding”. Therefore, the end prices will end up being higher than they would potentially be otherwise. Right now, I feel like the online auction scene is almost a weird secret society but when the likes of a Martha Stewart endorse one or its tied to a national charity that is public in their circle–your competitors grow and no deals may be available.
- Second chances. Items not sold or not picked up often roll over to another sale. For example, there was a sale received a lot of buzz and the items sold ended up going for close to the asking prices. However, the next month around a dozen items from the previous sale were included and not as many people were watching. Since I’m addicted, I was still watching and scored the item I had my eye on for $350.
- Advanced tip: If an item “passes” at an auction, ask the sale coordinator if you are able to bid post-sale on that item. Dependent on the agreement with the seller, the majority of items are yours for half off the original starting price post-sale. For example, that means that this Stark rug which is starting at auction at $125 and is yours post-sale for $62.50. A low cost of $150 for a Bennison love seat that is yours post-sale for $75.
- Be on the lookout for passes. If an item “passes” at auction and no one calls it, dependent on the seller terms, it rolls over to the next auction for half the price and eventually sold in the latter for $50. The same goes for items where bids were cast but the items were never paid for or picked-up.
- Look for short sales. Auctions will short sale cycles and morning start times will not have as many eyes on it or the amount of associated buzz surrounding the sale. I’m not sure if it’s poor planning by the auction house or what, but these sales will have your best deals.
- Don’t overlook the items with no photos esp. those of fabrics. The majority will have details in the description that you will be able to google on your own for a visual. If not, contact the auction house for a photo and/or further information.
- Bidding is final. Always remember that when you click “bid”, you are responsible for payment if you win.
Learn Auction House Lingo!
Here are a few terms that will make you sound like an old pro:
- Buyer’s Premium: The percentage paid by the successful bidder to the auction house in addition to the hammer price.
- Hammer price: The final bid price, whether property is sold or unsold, announced by the auctioneer when the gavel falls, not including the buyer’s premium.
- Lot: An object or group of objects offered for sale as one unit.
- Price realized: The final selling price + the buyer’s premium + the hammer price.
- Provenance: Information concerning a lot’s current or prior ownership that may affect value.
Live Auctioneer Stats:
- Around 500 people bid at a typical LiveAuctioneers-affiliated auction.
- Around 150 people are physically at the auction bidding, while about 350 more are online.
- Around 75 percent of online bids are absentee, while the remaining 25 percent are live internet bidders.