The beginners guide to Public auctions.

So you've never been to a Public Auction before, you have no idea what's going on and either feel afraid to ask or wonder how to participate?

Here's a comprehensive lowdown.

Public Auctions are either collective or disposal. Most are collective which means the items offered for sale have been collected from several different sellers (the vendor). A disposal auction is where a larger number of items are being sold at auction on behalf of one seller for reasons of simple clearance, liquidation or bankruptcy.

The items for public auctions are mostly second hand and are sold "as seen" complete with any faults or errors of description which are opinions only. However, some auction houses will include "A/F" (as found) against the item in their catalogue if they've found a difficult to see or hidden fault but the absence of A/F shouldn't be taken to mean the item has no faults. Items are available for prior inspection on "viewing day" and usually immediately prior to the auction in order that you may inspect and evaluate the condition of them before deciding whether you'd like to bid for the item and what you consider it's maximum value (to you) to be.

Each item or collection of items will have a number called a "Lot Number" as the items offered for sale in an auction are referred to as a "Lot". Some lots will be of one item only, others may have several items in the lot. The reason for having lot numbers is that it's easier to refer to, for instance "Lot 25" than to attempt to remember each item. Some auction houses will add a written number after the lot number showing how many items are included in the lot if there's more than one.

For convenience, the auction house will have available at least a list of lots referred to as "The Catalogue" even if it's just a simple list with short lot titles. A better auction may have a more comprehensive catalogue with a brief description and a Fine Art auction house may produce a very elaborate, well illustrated booklet which may have colour photographs of some or all lots. Catalogues may cost anything from 50p to several pounds depending on how elaborate they are.

Many auction houses have an illustrated online catalogue and may have the facility to download and print a simple list for free.

Now that you've had chance to browse a few online catalogues or get some idea of the type of lots offered at your particular local auction, it's time to check out the basics when attending, perhaps even just attending to "have a look" first as you're under no obligation to buy anything.

Armed with a catalogue, you can check out some of the lots which might interest you. Most people mark their catalogue so that their chosen lots are easy to find when looking down the page. Check that you've marked the correct lot as on the fall of the hammer the highest bidder has a legal obligation to buy and the item is yours, mistaken or not.

Most auctions have the lots numbered in simple order so that the numbers are continuous and easy to find but check that there are no alterations between your catalogue and the lot numbers.

Each auction house has their own, individual layout and you'll find the same type of lots in the same place in every auction. For instance, an auction house may have the lots beginning "number one" located on tables at one side of the auction room and in their next auction, the early lots from lot number one will be found in the same place. That means if your interest is boxes containing collections of allsorts, boxes like that will be found in a similar location at every auction.

Having now examined all lots in which you have an interest, it's time to think about how you go about buying a lot?

Making an offer to buy a lot is called "Bidding" or making a "Bid".
Some action houses take all their commission (their fee) from the seller (the vendor), some take part of their commission from the vendor and part from the buyer by way of a "Buyers Premium". Establish which practice is used at the auction you're attending and bear that in mind when bidding.

The "modern" form of conducting an auction is that all persons intending to bid for lots are required to register their name and address at reception and acquire a "Bidding Number" and a bidders card which has a large number printed on it.

The reason for using numbers is so that first of all when a lot is bought, the auctioneer can quickly and easily see the bidder number and when a successful bidder goes to pay for a lot (or lots), the cashier can enter that number in to the computer and it will quickly generate an invoice with all your bought lots quickly sorted, totalled and printed.

It's easier to use numbers rather than having to ask for and call out a bidders name as it may be difficult to hear or spell a name like "Mr Fauntleroy-Hough" or there may be several "Mr Jones" in the room.

The lots are arranged around the auction room(s) and during the auction, small items are brought out by a porter and held up individually before the audience as they're offered for sale. Large items are usually pointed out or indicated by a porter. The auctioneer sits at the rostrum facing the audience and calls out the lot number before bidding starts so listen out for any changes between the catalogue and the actual lots.

The auctioneer controls the auction and will offer a lot by asking for a bid at a certain price. If no-one bids, he will ask for an offer at decreasing prices until someone indicates a bid but you can start the bidding for that item as soon as you choose after the auctioneer gets bidding under way.

To bid, you attract the auctioneers attention by either holding up your card, waving it, catching the auctioneers eye or a combination of all three. The auctioneer will let you know he's seen and accepted your bid by either pointing in your general direction, catching your eye or both.

Once bidding is under way you have to concentrate keenly on what's happening as bidding is usually quite fast and it's quite common for an auctioneer to sell a hundred lots in an hour.

You may hear an auctioneer say that he's got a "commission bid" or that he has a bid "on the book". What that means is that someone who is unable to attend the auction has completed a commission bidding form and entered a maximum price for which he will pay for a particular lot. The auctioneer then bids on behalf of the absentee up to his maximum. If there are two commission bids for the same item, the auctioneer will start the bidding at one bid increment above the lowest commission bid.

Bids may also be accepted by phone from people who have earlier contacted the auction house and given their name, address and phone number so that a representative of the auction house may phone them as a lot comes up for sale. The representative then bids as instructed over the phone.

After accepting your bid, the auctioneer will invite further bids at the next bid increment of his choosing depending upon the price of the current bid, the higher the price, the larger the bid increments. Bidding continues until not further bids are made. When bidding is stalled at a particular price, the auctioneer may accept "any advance", that is, any bid higher than the last and failing further bids, the auctioneer may say he's going to sell at that price if there's no advance before bringing the hammer down. The auctioneer usually has a hammer or gavel which he bangs on the rostrum to indicate the end of bidding for a lot.

If the auctioneer says that he's "out here" or that "the bid's in the room" it means exactly that, the commission bidders or the phone bidders have been outbid and the current highest bidder is present in the room.

On the fall of the hammer, bidding is over for that item, the highest bidder holds up their card and the auctioneer will call out their number who is then the owner of the lot and becomes responsible for it from that moment on. If there's a dispute, the auctioneer, at his sole discretion may re-offer the lot.

If you're interested in several lots, you don't have to pay for your item until you're finished with bidding for your last lot but very large auction houses may ask for a deposit if you're not known to them. However, that's not a common practice at small provincial auctions.

Once you've secured all the lots in which you have any interest, you simply approach the cashier and ask to pay for your lots. As to paying, each auction house will have several methods from which you can choose to pay for successfully bids. All will accept cash, cheques may be accepted with a Bank Card, they may have their own Credit/Debit Card terminal (there may be a 2 - 3% charge for this) and for very large purchases, they may accept a Bankers Draft or Direct Bank Transfer. If their payment terms are not displayed or you've not seem them, just ask. The Terms of Business of the auction house are usually printed in the catalogue and may also be available in the room, again, just ask.

After payment, you approach a porter who will locate and hand over your items, ticking off each item on your invoice then you take them away.

There, easy enough isn't it?

© GJM 2009