Monday, March 10, 2008

Economic Sensibilities and the Auction House

The evening news is over and the martini has put Monday behind me. Between the stock market's continuing plunge and aside from Wall Street's collective Champagne corks popping over Governor Spitzer's transgressions, its time for seekers of value and finds to return to one of my true loves, that being the Auction House.

Just a few years out of college and with very little money to my name, a lovely British lady married into a fine Washington family introduced me to the world of auctions. I found myself out on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in three huge fields of human debris and valuables. Those days of watching and learning instilled a life long love of the auction business. I freely and with pleasure admit that a majority of the furniture I now own came from the auctioneer's gavel, and what fun it is!

I have found over the years that most people are intimidated by the auction process. We Americans are used to walking in and paying the price on the sticker. But we're one of the few people on the planet that operate this way. I've learned in my journeys to Southeast Asia, Turkey and beyond that the asking price is only entering the starting gate. As a matter of fact you're considered to lose face if you don't bargain, but thats another story.

Lets start simply by reviewing a local auction house and Washington institution known as Weschler's at 909 E Street behind the FBI Headquarters. In operation since 1890 its a great source for furniture, art, ceramics and everything in between here in DC. While they hold five or six major auctions a year ( which is the really good stuff) they also hold weekly auctions where I have found great finds.

If you get the opportunity, visit them on your lunch hour on Mondays to see what will be auctioned on Tuesday. If there's something that catches your eye but you can't come back for the auction there are staff that will take your bid and try and get you the piece. True auction hounds frown on this practice as it tends to up the bidding price from the start.

The most important piece of information however is what you will pay for the honor of bidding and what you must always remember. That is the Auction House service charge and sales tax, to be added in, which according to house rules can add 25% to the final price. Thats why when bidding on a piece you always have to have a number in your head at which point you drop out of the race. And a race it is. The auctioneer moves and speaks very quickly, don't let this deter you from your quest. That's part of the fun. Your heart will race, your hand will be jumping up. Its great fun and very addictive after you've made that first great buy.

If your a complete beginner I urge you to attend one of the six yearly major auctions, always on a Saturday. Just walk in and take a seat and watch the process then wander around downtown for a nice lunch. Its a great way to spend a weekend outing and learn about a great deal. Here are a few pictures from their last major auction which shows some beautiful pieces that you'll be hard pressed to ever find in a store.

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