12 November 2021

6 top tips for budding bidders, as auction houses embrace the tech revolution

12 November 2021

The days when you had to physically attend auctions are long gone. Technology has opened up new opportunities for bidders, embracing virtual viewings and chances to bid online or via an app.

Charlie Thomas, director of house sales, private and iconic collections at Bonhams (bonhams.com), describes the switch to the virtual world during the coronavirus pandemic as “extraordinary to witness”.

He says: “I’ve spent my whole life selling to rooms filled with people and now, in the last 18 months, I’m selling to rooms filled with big TV screens.”

Charlie Thomas at a Bonhams auction (Bonhams Press/PA)

Bonhams has also launched an app, with Thomas saying: “It’s so easy now to just bid online and get all the information you need – all the additional photographs, videos, condition reports. People have embraced this new way of buying.”

If you’re new to auctions, it’s important to understand how they work, so here are some tips…

1. Remember it can be a gamble – and you might not win the item

Thomas says: “The bidding public set the prices. We give an estimate – what we think an item’s worth – by looking at comparable items which have sold in the past.”

The risk of being outbid depends on how badly other people also want something, and how much they are willing to pay.

Thomas says: “With auctions, you’re bidding against the market and of course some can be a gamble. Some days you will get things for less than you expected and sometimes things will sell for way more.”

To stop yourself getting too carried away, it’s worth deciding your maximum price limit beforehand.

2. Don’t forget other costs

It’s important to factor in extra costs such as buyer’s premium, VAT and shipping. “The buyer’s premium is the commission that you pay the auctioneer for buying an item at auction,” explains Thomas, and it tends to be charged as an additional percentage on top of the winning bid price.

3. Make the most of the different ways to bid

“Since the pandemic, auctioneers across the world have embraced the technological revolution,” says Thomas. “A lot of people will buy purely from photographs and bid on the internet, or a lot of people bid via the (Bonhams) app. Some people still come in – and of course we love that.

“You can book a telephone line, or you can leave a bid. Leaving a bid is the safest way of making sure you don’t get carried away. So if you leave a bid ‘on the book’ of (for example) £1,500, the auctioneer will bid on your behalf. They’ll start with the absentee bidder at the reserve [the confidential minimum price agreed beforehand].”

With the auctioneer bidding for you in your absence, you’ll still get the item for the lowest possible amount, and if no one else bids or if there are only a couple of bids you could end up paying much less than the maximum bid left with the auctioneer.

4. Do your research before bidding

You no longer have to leave the comfort of your own home to bid on items (Alamy/PA)

Websites such as The Saleroom (the-saleroom.com) showcase items from different auctions houses in one place. Also, make use of auction houses’ condition reports, which detail any defects – particularly important if you’re not viewing in person.

Nicola Whittaker, business development manager at Fellows Auctioneers (fellows.co.uk), says as well as public viewings: “We offer high-resolution images and detailed condition reports on every item we sell, so customers can receive in-depth information on items they will bid on without having to view them in person.”

She adds: “We offer free virtual viewings on items. Customers can call to view an item via Zoom and one of our specialists will show them their desired lot over the internet.”

5. Make use of any other tools

Fellows, for example, has an online “bid calculator” to help customers work out the total costs, including fees, before they bid. It also runs timed online-only auctions open for bidding for a few weeks and will email buyers if they had been outbid, enabling them to bid again if they wish.

6. Finally, have fun

Provided you stick within affordability limits, auctions can be exciting places to find interesting one-offs.

Whittaker says: “At various points since the start of the pandemic, people have been unable to go on holidays or leave their homes – so buying at auction has provided the perfect escapism.”

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