Auctions: Behind the scenes

How Do Auctions Work?

The time I spent working for a multi-generational auction house that handles mostly estates and household goods was an eye opener. It helped cement my desire to become an appraiser.

Say the word ‘auction’ and many people immediately envision a large hall, packed with people and bidders, with a stage and an auctioneer doing the sing-song chant that is designed to amp up interest in a lot while describing it. The auctioneer may also be accompanied by a clerk to keep track of sales and assistants displaying the items.

At live auctions, potential buyers are allowed to examine the items prior to the start of bidding, and must wait for the lot number of the item they want to come up before they can bid on it. Some auction houses have switched to online-only auctions, but no matter what they sell, the preparation for an auction is largely the same.

Once a consignor’s items are given an auction date, their items are shipped to the auction house. In the case of some auction houses, like Kastner Auctions in Edmonton, the consignor is responsible for preparing their own items.

At other auction houses, though, staff are responsible for unpacking, inspecting items for damage and sorting items into lots. The lots are then photographed, catalogued and assigned a lot number. High value items are sold on their own while lower value items are generally sold in box lots. This is the drudge work that you rarely see on TV; as with all reality shows, the footage is heavily edited and jumps straight into the more exciting portions.

When an online auction is ready, it is launched on a platform like HiBid and the fun begins. You can scroll through pages of items, or enter keywords in a search bar. You can start a watch list, and of course, bid on lots. Once you’ve cast a winning bid, expect to pay a bidder’s premium (aka the BP), which ranges around 10% at local auction houses. Fine-art auction house like Sotheby’s have a sliding scale of BP, depending on the value of the item and auction location. Lots are picked up in person or are shipped.

The irony of online auctions is that they now rule out the need for an auctioneer, though once again Kastner Auctions bucks the trend with an auction format that is a hybrid: a live streamed auction with a live auctioneer. Clearly it works!

While I’m on the topic of Kastner Auctions, shout-out to Edmonton-based YouTuber, antique store owner and philanthropist Alexander Archbold and his fantastic Curiosity Inc. channel. His channel is another one of my binges, second only to Antiques Roadshow. He often consigns items to auction at Kastner and follows the bidding, which he allows his viewers to watch.

Sometimes items come in that have the staff puzzling over them. One such item at the auction house where I worked was a piece of sterling Victorian tableware that loosely resembled a butter knife, but with a tapering blunt twist of metal instead of a blade. I thought it might be for transferring a chunky condiment, like chutney, from a serving piece to a plate.

Sterling silver Victorian butter pick (Rose Point pattern) identified by Seika Groves. Photo courtesy of the author.

The mystery was solved by my friend Seika Groves, who correctly identified it as a butter pick, a dainty way to pick up a pat of butter and transfer it to your plate. Now that I knew what I was looking for, it was easy to find others like it online and get a current estimate of its value. That lot eventually sold for $60, arguably on the strength of the butter pick alone!

And that’s all for today, folks! Hope you have learned something useful, and feel free to reach out to me via the contact form with any questions.

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