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Ask About Antiques: Auctioneers and Auctions

by Budd A. Moore, Ed.D.

I have to say that the auctioneering profession has always fascinated me. Auctioneers in our area of the country have cornered the market on integrity and efficiency in marketing. They conduct millions of dollars in business each year, moving hundreds of thousands of articles to new owners without even a hint of Enron-type corruption or dishonesty.

Becoming an auctioneer is apparently easier said than done. Sometimes auctioneers have to “pay their dues” for many years in the shadow of more established chanters before they can get up behind the auction block in their own right. Training and licensure of auctioneers in our area varies from minimal to very difficult and complicated. Pennsylvania has perhaps one of the most closely governed auctioneer statutes in the tri-state area. Increasingly, a college degree and training is being required to break into the profession. Gone are the days when someone who wanted to “call sale” could just jump up on a farm wagon and begin chanting the prices of household and farm items without state approval and licensure.

I’m not sure that all this training and red tape has made auctioneers better or more responsible. It seems that our area has been blessed with competent, tried and true, honest men and women who take great pride and satisfaction in their work and the service they offer. However, auctioneering schools are graduating more candidates than ever in this country. Interestingly, only about 5% of auctioneers who graduate and enter the field are ever able to make it a full time profession. Most students apprentice with an established auctioneer or become attached to an established auction house. Established, auctioneers always have the upper hand in the market since they have sold more items and have had more experience than newcomers.

Many auction attendees find the experience addictive. They report that there’s nothing quite like the thrill of finding something you want and then bidding against others who want the same thing. I can attest to this excitement. Although I have not been active in the auction circuit recently, I remember the excitement of it all. You actually don’t have to be a seasoned auction attendee to be able to experience the thrill of auctions. Auctioneers locally and across the country are glad to welcome new bidders to their auctions. Of course, everyone has heard the old story about the person who attended an auction, scratched his nose and come home with an item he had not intended to buy. Don’t pay any attention to this old story.

“People who have never been to an auction before should certainly give it a try,” according to John Roebuck, CAI, AARE, president of the National Auctioneers Association. “Don’t be intimidated - go and have fun.”

Feel free to just get your feet wet - don’t think you have to go to your first auction ready to bid. Attend an auction or two in your area to get a feel for how they are conducted. Watch and listen, then move on to bidding if that makes you comfortable.

Many auctioneers spend some time addressing commonly asked questions and explaining how the auction is going to work. Some even conduct pre-auction or practice sessions, or brief tutorials, about the auction process. If you’re interested in going to your first auction, check with local auctioneers to see if they offer such a service. Always remember that at an auction you’re free to ask a question if you don’t understand something. Auctioneers and their staffs want people to continue to come to their auctions, so they’ll do all they can to encourage repeat business! Ask a question of a member of the auctioneer’s team, and they’ll find the answer for you.

When you arrive at an auction site, register for a bidder number and read the rules printed on or displayed on posters, brochures or handouts. Again, ask questions if you don’t understand a policy. Inspect the merchandise you’re interested in, as most is auctioned on an “as is, where is” basis. This means it is not guaranteed. When you buy an item, you become responsible for it. And keep in mind that you’ll pay for the items you purchase before you leave the auction, even if you aren’t taking everything with you that day.

In order to bid at an auction, you need to make contact with the auctioneer or the ringperson. A ringperson is someone who takes bids from the audience and then passes those on to the auctioneer. To bid, hold up your bid card, your hand or shout “yes.” The auctioneer or ringperson will make eye contact with you, take your bid and immediately turn and seek another bid. You can remove yourself from the process at any time by shaking your head “no” or saying “no” if the auctioneer or ringperson turns your way.

Attending an auction coupled with collecting a certain category of antiques can be the elixir to soothe all of the cares and tension of a workweek. The excitement and satisfaction of getting a prized piece for your collection through an auction is akin to the excitement that hunters experience stalking their game. Auctioneers are great people to get to know since they are also a great source of information about prices in the local market. They are generally a wealth of information as well as a professional who will serve you well in disposing of household goods and collectable items too numerous to mention.

This article is dedicated to the memory of the auctioneers that I have known who are now deceased. I know they are certainly calling sale somewhere else on high. Leslie Bohn, Howard Cook, J. Robert Meyers, and Edgar J. Stull.

Moore, Ed.D., is a specialist in the valuation of antique and collectable objects of the last 100 years. He is an educator, counselor, and avid antique enthusiast as well as a candidate member of the American Society of Appraisers. He has been a collector of antique American Art Pottery and has been a dealer for over 20 years. He is familiar with nearly all lines of American Art Pottery, twentieth century glassware, Art Deco, and Art Nouveau categories. If you have a question about antiques or collectibles, you can e-mail him at or drop him a letter at P.O. Box 328, State Line, PA 17263-0328. An answer to your question may appear in a subsequent column.

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