Don't be sold on one auctioneer untIl you investigate


April 18, 1993|By Lita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen | Lita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen,Contributing Writers

Deciding how much to bid at auction is tricky business, but choosing where to auction an estate, collection or family heirloom can be even tougher. It involves knowing what your property might be worth, comparing fees and services, and choosing the auction house most likely to market your consignment aggressively. Among the choices are selling locally, which can be quick and bring good results, at regional auction houses, which can offer greater exposure, or at Sotheby's or Christie's, the international auctioneers, which many think attract the greatest cash and cachet.

Visit during sales

"I always advise potential consignors to visit at least two or three auction companies while a sale is in progress," said Willard McKay of Alderfer Auction Co., a firm in Hatfield, Pa. "It's important to observe the crowd and the auctioneer's attitude, and see how things are traded," he added. "I wouldn't sell at a place where I didn't feel comfortable buying."

It's also important to be certain the firms you're considering are solvent. The recession has claimed several well-known auctioneers, including Connecticut's Litchfield Auction Gallery and Maine's Richard W. Oliver, Inc. Bankruptcy can leave consignors in long lines of unhappy creditors waiting to be paid.

Owners who have no idea about their property's origin or value should request a free oral appraisal. Most auction houses provide this service, hoping to attract consignments. At Christie's, Sotheby's and major regional auctioneers, staff specialists generally are available to examine small or portable items at the "front desk" without an appointment. For hard-to-transport property, consider mailing clearly focused photographs. If from the pictures the items look authentic and salable, the auction house might arrange shipping to its warehouse or send a representative for a first-hand examination.

These free appraisal services don't obligate owners to consign property. Many owners get several evaluations before deciding where to sell. Read the consignment contract before signing it, and ask questions.

If your chair turns out to be a valuable antique, or your painting a masterpiece, auctioneers might compete for your business. Regionals are competing fiercely with Sotheby's and Christie's to prove the best prices aren't always achieved in New York.

"We work very hard to sell every lot that comes through our galleries," said Leslie Hindman of Chicago-based Leslie Hindman Auctioneers, citing her December success in selling a painting by American Impressionist Louis Ritman for $132,000, $22,000 more than a similar Ritman oil fetched at Christie's the previous week. "For us, the Ritman was something special. We were on the phone and traveling to promote it to every possible interested party," she said.

Clean sweeps

Ronald Bourgeault of Northeast Auctions in Hampton, N.H., an Americana specialist, claims he gets prices as high as Sotheby's and Christie's. His March sale grossed $1.5 million, and a circa 1750 Queen Anne mahogany dressing table, with a carved shell in the center of its skirt, attributed to the Newport, R.I., famed Goddard-Townsend workshop, brought $220,000.

If you have a house full of general effects or are settling an estate, many auctioneers will examine the property on site without charge. However, if you need a formal written appraisal to satisfy legal, insurance or tax requirements, expect to pay a flat daily or hourly fee. (The cost should never be a percentage of the property's value.) Most auctioneers also can provide "clean sweep" services, removing all the property for sale or disposal (sometimes even buying items outright) and broom-cleaning the residence.

"When dealing with an estate, it usually makes sense to sell at public auction," Mr. Bourgeault advises. "We make your life easier, and the executor is fulfilling his fiduciary responsibility by selling in an open public forum."

Sellers decide

Auctioneers charge sellers' commissions on a sliding scale, typically from 25 percent of an auction lot's "hammer price" (winning bid) for the least expensive item to 10 percent for more valuable ones. Because of intense competition for spectacular consignments, some auctioneers admit sellers' commissions can drop to zero when they want to sell something badly enough. Consignors also generally pay the auction house varying fees for insurance, transportation, storage and catalog photos, although those charges sometimes are negotiable.

Many larger firms publish pre-sale price estimates, agreed upon by consignors, in their catalogs. Few local auctions print such estimates. Consignors shouldn't be scared off by low estimates. "We estimate low to encourage collectors to come to our sales or leave bids," says Chicago's Ms. Hindman. "We don't want to discourage potential clients."

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