Buying Antiques at Auction

Tessa Steinkamp of New Orleans Auction Galleries gives us the play-by-play on scoring antiques of any provenance at auction

Published September 2018. Updated September 2022. In January, The Washington Post reported that “Antique and vintage sales have soared, thanks to supply chain issues.” In June, news outlets were reporting that supply chain plus inflation were making the antique market even hotter as consumers consider the cost of new pieces. The prices on everything else seem to soar, but antiques remain remarkably stable. While antique stores and flea markets like the Brimfield Antique Show, Scott Antique Market, and the Round Top Antiques Show may be the first places that come to mind for most shoppers, they are overlooking another outlet—antique auctions.

When you want tips for buying antiques at auction, turn to an insider. We asked Tessa Steinkamp, auctioneer and director of auctions at New Orleans Auction Galleries, to share the goods.

Why buy antiques at auction?

Auction houses are great resources for one-of-a-kind and hard-to-find items, including antiques, art, estate jewelry, and vintage furs. Because they handle estates and private collections, they offer access to things that have remained in families for generations.

What are the estimated values based on?

They are based on several factors, including an object’s rarity, condition, authenticity, provenance, and historical significance. Specialists work with consignors to research and appraise each item based on current market values, which can fluctuate over time.

A George III sterling tray and a pair of 18th-century famille rose vases.
A George III sterling tray and a pair of 18th-century famille rose vases. Floral arrangements by Dunn and Sonnier
Corner detail of a Louis XV-style mahogany bureau
Corner detail of a Louis XV-style mahogany and gilded-bronze bureau plat (writing table).

Tell us about the fees and fine print.

The buyer is responsible for a buyer’s premium, which is a fee that is added to the hammer (sale) price of an item. Each auction house has its own premium percentage and scale, but industry standards are normally around 20 percent. Buyers are also responsible for paying sales tax as well as any applicable delivery or shipping costs. The conditions of sale vary among auction houses, but all are required to publish them in advance, so be sure to review them before bidding.

How do you prepare to bid?

All items are sold as is, so it’s important to do your homework. Make sure to read the full catalog description, and never hesitate to ask questions beforehand. Auction houses hold exhibitions allowing potential buyers to inspect items in person. If you cannot attend, request a condition report and additional photos of the item that interests you.

A polychrome secretary with chinoiserie decoration
A polychrome secretary with chinoiserie decoration displays a small 19th-century watercolor portrait.

Do you have to be present to bid?

No. You can bid from anywhere via online, absentee, or telephone bidding. Buyers must submit absentee or telephone bids in advance and pre-register for online bids.

What is the most common mistake a buyer makes when attempting to buy at auction?

Not being aggressive enough. I hear so many comments from people who regret not going after something they had their heart set on.

Now that you have the basics down, give an antique auction a try.

By Margaret Zainey Roux | Photography by Sara Essex Bradley

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