Absentee Bidding: 6 Tips to Make Sure You Get What You Pay For

By Renee Corbino

gavelSo, you’ve combed the internet for that painting by the artist you saw on your honeymoon in Italy, the porcelain figurine you remember from your grandparents house as a child, or that perfect piece of jewelry to celebrate your 10 year anniversary, and you’re ready to buy.  The only problem? The auctions in California, and you live in Maine. While distance used to be a huge hurdle, its easier than ever to buy absentee at auction. Just follow the few pieces of advice below and you’ll be well on your way to a successful absentee bid.

Tip #1: Call the auction house and get a condition report.  Most auction houses do their best to disclose any damage or repairs, but they don’t always see every condition problem. The bidder terms and conditions protect them if they haven’t mentioned a condition problem, and most won’t accept return if you haven’t asked for a condition report. Make sure to specifically ask if the piece has been repaired or has any damage, and ask them to examine any specific areas such as flowers or leaves on porcelain pieces. If they haven’t already, ask the auction house to provide you with digital images from all angles so that you can see for yourself.  If you are inquiring about a painting ask if its been relined or repaired, and make sure that a black light has been employed in their evaluation, which will highlight any in-painting or restoration. For jewelry, ask if a professional jeweler or gemologist has reviewed the pieces, if so, this should give you confidence that the pieces are correctly cataloged. If not, find out where they got the information from and form your opinion accordingly (but find out their return policy in case of incorrect information)

Tip #2: Read the bidding terms carefully and if you have any questions, ask prior to finalizing your bids. Most auction houses will require a signed bid form, so be prepared to scan or fax your form back to the auction house.  Remember that this is a contract, and by signing the bid form you are obligated to pay for the item. Make sure your contact information and max bid is legible to avoid confusion.  If you have ANY questions, make sure to talk to the auction house prior to finalizing the bid. Expect a confirmation from the auction house either by phone or email.  If you don’t receive a confirmation, contact the auction house the day before the auction to make sure that everything is in place.

Tip#3: Ask the auction house ahead of time how they handle shipping.  If they use an outside shipping company, such as a UPS store, call the one they recommend and get a quote so you’re not blindsided with a high cost after you’ve already bought the item.

Tip #4: Decide whether you would prefer phone or absentee bidding. There are advantages and disadvantages to both phone and absentee bidding.  Phone bidding allows you to be in on the action, and a bit more control over the bidding, but you really have to be in an environment that allows you pay attention and make quick decisions.  With absentee bidding the auctioneer takes care of the bids for you. Absentee bidding is a good alternative if you are not going to be by a phone or if you think that you might go over your limit in the heat of the auction. For popular lots, make sure that you are a serious bidder and plan to bid somewhere within or above the estimate for phone bidding.  If not, bid absentee will save you time and the auction house frustration.

Tip #5: Pay promptly and get your items shipped to you. If you know that you were the winning bidder, either on the phone or absentee, call the auction house if you don’t get an invoice within a day or two.  They could have your contact information wrong or an emailed invoice could go to your spam folder.  Do not expect the auction house to immediately charge your card or arrange shipping for you without talking to you first. It is in your best interest to pay and get the item promptly, as it belongs to you as soon as the hammer falls, even before you’ve paid for the item.

Tip #6: If you think that the auction house made an error in attribution or a serious error in condition, notify them, in writing, immediately.  Most auction houses have limits on the amount of time that an item can be returned. To return an item based on a attribution or age, you most likely will need to get a written report from an expert in the field. Make sure that if there is any question you show it to an expert ahead of time- if the problem obvious from the pictures, they won’t accept return.

When bidding absentee, communication with the auction house is key.  Make sure to ask about condition, shipping, and return policies.  Auction houses want to provide you with all of the information concerning an item, as well as make sure that you are set up successfully to bid, so that you are a happy, repeat bidder.

About Renee Corbino
Renee Corbino has a decade of experience in the auction industry. Her expertise covers a broad spectrum of fine and decorative arts and antiques including: paintings, silver, ceramics, furniture, netsuke and more. She received her Bachelor’s degree with a double major in classical studies & art history from the University of Maryland, College Park and her Master of Decorative Arts from the Smithsonian & George Mason University.

2 thoughts on “Absentee Bidding: 6 Tips to Make Sure You Get What You Pay For

  1. That’s right! Caveat emptor! The reason auction houses have limits on returns is because they have to pay a consignor. After a certain amount of time, the money is gone. Getting your purchase in your possession ASAP is critical so that you have time to decide if you really got what they said they were selling you.

  2. […] Over dinner with some of my colleagues in the auction world, we began talking about absentee bidding and how sometimes an item will sell to a floor bidder for the exact same amount as an earlier absentee bid.  Many times clients feel that because their bid was in first, prior to the start of the auction, they should have been the winner, but the item sold to a bidder on the floor and was already paid for and taken away.  This discussion began because it can be difficult to explain the situation to the absentee bidder, but it is an important issue and illustrative of a situation that both bidders and auctioneers face from time to time. While it may appear at first glance that this is a situation where the bids are “tied,” that is not actually the case.  Tied bids usually apply to two separate absentee bidders that have left the same amount, and in that situation the earlier absentee bid will  take precedence. I’ve tried to simplify the explanation for anyone who finds themselves in this situation, and provided a way in which to prevent it from happening on a must-have item.  (To read about general absentee bidding, read my earlier post here). […]