5 Mar

Antique eye

In the first of a new series on making the most of our antiques, collectables and vintage curios, antiques expert, James Braxton advises on selling at auction for the first time.

The first piece of advice I’d give is: go to an auction house you know, and preferably one you have bought from before. If you have enjoyed buying at a particular auction room, you will probably enjoy selling there, too.

And if you don’t know of any auction houses, ask your solicitor or estate agent: that’s advice they’ll give freely!

Verbal valuations 

Give the auction house a call, and explain you have things to sell. If the items in question are large – on which note, don’t forget things such as garden benches and urns – they’ll come to you. They will also give you the times of valuation days and, most important, verbal valuations without charge: you only pay commission, a percentage of the sale price, after auction. If you like what the auctioneer recommends, agree sale estimates and protective reserves, generally only placed on items with lower estimates.

The right auctioneer 

These days, a lot of sales are made over the internet, but the truth is, that busy auction rooms generate the highest prices. Rather like a crowded restaurant, an auction room will have an energy all of its own, full of excitement, awaiting the auctioneer’s lead. Talking of auctioneers, beware the descending variety, whose patter goes something like this: “Who will give me £100? All right, £80? Surely £50? And, this is a bargain at £30!” You want a showman who begins at £30 knowing the item is worth is £100. Bargains bring bids and once bidders raise their hands it’s the auctioneer’s job to jolly them to the final bid and the fall of the hammer. And remember: a miserable auctioneer never gets the last bid. I remember well, an auctioneer in St James’s, selling pictures. I’ve never seen an auctioneer smile so much; he really led his bidders on a merry journey.

Extra polish 

The auctioneer is one thing: but what can you do to improve the price of your items? First, clean them properly: polish the wood, buff the brass and wash the china and glass. You wouldn’t buy dirty goods from a shop, so why should an auction be any different? Put another way, if you want the last couple of bids, do the work that your buyers will see as a cost. Communicate that your items have been cherished.

Sell your story 

Second, tell the story: or what the trade terms ‘the provenance’. Was your mother’s mother, a ‘Mrs Patmore’ to a stately home who on her retirement was given a Faberge cigarette case by a grateful family?

A famous former owner or home can improve the price no end. I remember selling a Windsor ash-and-elm seated chair with a brass plaque engraved: ‘Charles Dickens sat on this chair 22nd October 1851.” The plaque was polished and looked as if it too had been around since 1851. Result? Instead of the chair fetching £200, it made over £1,000!

Keep watch 

Once your items are sparkling and are accompanied by stories, all that remains is the actual auction. It might sound obvious, but be sure to attend the event, and, before, make a point of asking the auctioneer how he thinks your lots will do. Then sit down in his sight line: an auctioneer will always try a little harder when he knows he is being watched.

Some items exceed financial expectations, but after sales, it’s also likely there’ll be some unsold lots. You can either re-enter them in the next sale, or take your items home. You might well plump for the latter. When I report unsold lots to sellers, I expect disappointment, but there is always a proportion of people who will say: “I’m delighted, I can now keep it.”

Sales summary 

The admin bit of the proceedings comes next. You will receive a sales summary of your items, and the action to be taken: either re-entry in the next sale with a new lower reserve, or with no reserve at all. Then around two weeks later, you get some post in the form of a sales statement showing the money raised less sales commission (around 15%) insurance and photography charges. Since they are services, these deductions are subject to VAT, but remember you don’t pay VAT on the hammer prices. From chipped Royal Doulton jugs to Van Gogh paintings, all antiques are classified as secondhand goods.

James Braxton is an auctioneer and expert on TV’s Bargain Hunt and Flog It. Follow him @jameswbraxton