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Auctions And Bidding 101

A quick lesson in auctions and bidding.
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Bidding for Dummies
Dallas Auction Gallery is the new game in town. Here’s how to play it.

Somewhere, out in the cosmos, are six framed 19th-century Italian architectural drawings that I really really wanted. I still think about the night I lost them at an auction to a man with red hair. Actually, I didn’t lose them at an auction because I didn’t even bid for them because, and this is embarrassing, I was too shy. That was the first lesson I learned about the art of bidding—the auctioneer cannot read your mind.

The fact is that bidding takes confidence and practice, and there is now a wonderful place in town to do just that. Housed in a huge showroom on Slocum Street, Dallas Auction Gallery is becoming something of a scene, where every six weeks more than 300 savvy designers, dealers, collectors, amateurs, and eBay participants bid for furniture and decorative arts from all over the region. The auctioneer, Jerry Holley, though not a mind reader, is one of the most experienced appraisers in Texas, and just as likeable. All of the merchandise is consigned, mostly from estates. There are no reserves; high bid wins, even if it’s preposterously low. It’s not quite like any auction house I’ve seen: owners Kathi and Scott Shuford set out wine and hors doeuvres throughout the evening, and there’s an air of bonhomie. Then the bidding starts, and it’s every man for himself.

How to play the game
Live auctions can be intimidating. I used to worry that I might scratch my nose and end up buying a horrendous piece of ormolu. I assure you that almost never happens. But there are a few things you need to know if you’re new to the game. The most important thing is go to previews. At Dallas Auction Gallery, previews last five or six days, so there’s plenty of time to run over, see all of the merchandise, and ask questions. If it’s damaged or sub-par, they’ll tell you; if it’s an importance piece, they’ll share its provenance.

I used to think that auctions were about getting great deals, but I now know they’re about getting great stuff. There are no brilliant bidding strategies, just the pursuit of what you want and the limits you’ll go to get it. If you’re serious about something, communicate your level of interest early. One approach is to open the bidding high. If you want an object with an estimated value of $2,000-$3,000, open with $2,500. You also can jump the bid. If an opening bid is $100, rather than raising by the minimum—$25 for items up to $500, $50 for up to $1,000, and so on—double it. That will discourage bargain hunters from jimmying up the bids early.

While there are no major bargains (you can bet that anything that goes for far below market value is somehow flawed), you can get lucky every now and then. Experienced auction goers recommend paying very close attention to what’s sold at the beginning and the end of the evening. The auctioneer will usually open with something special to loosen everyone up; however, the crowd is almost always cold, so it’s the perfect time to bid. He’ll also save a few interesting pieces for the end of the evening to encourage people to stick it out. Few will. If you have presence of mind and staying power, you can pick up some great things for excellent prices. And, unlike me, you’ll never be haunted by the one that got away.


Bidding tips

Set a limit and stick to it. If you get caught up in the heat of bidding, you’ll always pay more. (Auctioneers say that men are particularly prone to this.)

Make yourself known: get a reserved seat; pick a lucky number, and ask for it every time.

Pay attention. There’s an odd spell when everyone glazes over and two or three items in a row will go for far less than market value.

Don’t wait until the end to bid. Bid at least once in the beginning so that the auctioneer knows you’re interested. He’ll watch for you throughout the process in case you want one last crack at it.

Watch for dealers. And don’t be afraid to bid against them. Think of it this way: if you top a dealer by one bid, you’re still buying pretty darn close to wholesale.

Dallas Auction Gallery, 1518 Slocum St. 214-653-3900.

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