Top 10 reasons to be wary of online bidding

Following Antique Trader’s Twitter feed, I found this tweet a few days ago: Question of the week: Do you participate in auction house online bidding? If not, why?

For collectors who live in New York City, online bidding may seem to be unnecessary because Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Doyle, Swann and with ever improving bus service, even Freeman or Skinner are all accessible. But missing auctions in places outside your area means missing opportunities or treasures that can leave you with severe regret. Plus, there are auctions almost every weekend, and to be physically there is not possible, even with all your enthusiasm and energy. Big auction houses tend to have sales of the same categories on the same day, therefore participating in online bidding can be efficient and cost-saving. But there is a learning curve:

10 Reasons To Be Wary of Online Bidding

1. Online bidding is not for everyone, especially not for beginners. There is no better way to learn than handling objects in person and talking to experts at a preview. The method of participation is less important than the procedure of examining items personally.

Just because it is convenient to bid online does not mean you should skip your homework. In particular, if personal examination during the preview is not possible, it is in generally not a good idea to purvey into some new area in which you are not fully equipped with knowledge of history, artistic merit, maker or valuation based on condition, rarity, etc.

I can think of an example of a pair of Chippendale-style chairs online at a major auction house. They were labeled as Chippendale (the word style was no where to be found) and given a provenance date from the 1960s. That date could be as far back as the ownership trail could be ascertained, or it could mean the chairs were produced in the 1960s. Had I not called, I would have been inclined to assume they were period chairs. Only with a return call did I learn they were 20th century Chippendale-style chairs.

2. Pictures lie! Do not fully trust pictures alone. Pictures are in general OK for two-dimensional works such as paintings or prints, but can poorly represent 3-D objects such as chairs or porcelain. All items are the same size on a Web page, but you need to grasp their real size by reading the description and hence comprehending true dimensions.

3. Always ask for condition report, even for items that you may have the dimmest possibility to bid on; and do it at least one week before the auction. For oil paintings, make sure that the report includes black light examination, paint loss, an abrasion report and frame condition. Always ask for extra pictures with the frame, signature and the back of the canvas. For three dimensional objects, ask for more pictures if possible.

In the field of Chinese porcelain, in-house photographers generally skip photographing the bottom rim, mark and inside, which can provide important information. For antique chairs, pictures of tenons, stiles/rails, and seat frames without cushions are informative.

4. Submit your registration as soon as possible. It may take one or two days to process the registration. And make sure to check the start time. Most of the online bidding platforms are built by IT companies in Silicon Valley and it is common that the start time is listed based on Pacific time.

5. Check the premium structure and the extra fee superimposed by the online bidding platform. Some platforms charge fees — up to 3 percent on top of the transaction. You can avoid that by bidding through the phone, although items with low estimation may not be available for phone bid.

6. Shipping should also be checked. Some auction houses like James D. Julia have in-house shipping while other auction houses offer a list of recommended shippers. For large items, it is wise to send the inquiry to the potential shipper before bidding so that you can estimate your budget more precisely.

7. Be aware that no online bidding platform is perfect. A delay may occur between the time you submit your bid and the time the bid is accepted. Very often, if an auctioneer pays more attention to the floor, it’s possible for a floor bidder to end a winner even with the same bid amount. Sometimes, your bid may not go through and the items can be sold to someone else with a lower bid. (Those fair-warning signs appear sometimes too brief to alert online bidders.) I have experienced both scenarios although they do not appear often.

Don’t give up if an item ended up to someone else while you intended to bid higher, you can still call the auction house and make your case. It is possible that the hammer price didn’t meet the reserved value and you may get the second chance to bid on it again.

8. When bidding online, some auction houses allow you to see live video and hear the auctioneer. Turn this feature off if possible. I’ve found it tends to slow down the performance even with high-speed Internet. If you’re watching and listening, you may find what you’re seeing is a lot or two behind what’s happening on the floor — leaving you no chance to bid successfully.

9. Once you are NOT limiting yourself to local auction houses, the abundance of interesting items from browsing or may carry you away. Make a list of potential items ordered chronologically and strictly vet them by giving an upper limit for the budget and a scale of desirability can help collectors stay focused in online bidding.

10. Finally, don’t limit yourself to shopping online. When you shop online, you have a tendency to search for what’s familiar. When you go to an auction house, or a show or shop for that matter, a whole new world can open up because you’re exposed to things you would not have previously searched for.

Overall, it is always better to personally handle and examine objects in which you are interested. But online bidding provides a remedy to bid on items when personal attendance to auction houses is not practical.

Personally I have only successfully bid online once for an inexpensive item, partially because of the extra charge from the online bidding platform. I have not found it superior to phone bidding, although some people may claim clicking on a mouse in front of a quiet computer is less intense emotionally than raising one’s hand or talking through phone, thus leading to more rational behaviors and decisions (and with this argument absentee bidding would be preferable to online bidding).

Yet in the field of antique collecting, it is the fever or (in a better word) passion that makes an enriched collecting experience.

Eric Miller is a public relations professional who works in the antiques industry, including with professional show promoters Melrose & Duddy. He is also a regular contributor to the online Web magazine Urban Art and Antiques His personal Web site is


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