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Tips for bidding and buying at auctions

20 February 2020

Learn more with these top tips for bidding at auction plus auction buying hints and tips – including penny auctions - to put you on the path to success.

Tea cup lot at an auction
Bidding in person can be fun, as long as you don’t get carried away

Do your research at live auctions in person and online when bidding at auction

If you’ve never bid before, spend an hour or two observing your local auction. Different auctioneers have different styles, but wherever you go the process is essentially the same. You can also listen to, and sometimes watch, auctions online through sites like, and

Arrive in good time to register when bidding at auction

You’ll have to register before you bid which can take time. Arrive an hour or so before your lot(s) is due. The speediest auctions get through 180 lots and hour, while those with perhaps 70 people internet bidding generally slow things down.

Be aware of 'absentee bids' when bidding at auction

If the auctioneer starts the bidding below the lower estimate, there are probably no absentee (commission) bids. If he (most auctioneers are men) starts on the lower estimate or higher, there probably are. He may well say ‘there’s a lot of interest in this lot’ or ‘I have multiple bids’ which means he has absentee bids.

Take your time when bidding at auction

Don’t jump in straight away. If you can, size up the competition. You should be able to see roughly how many are interested in the room. If telephones and the internet are also involved, the chances are it will go for around the upper estimate or above.

How to sell at auction

Be mindful of big price rises when bidding at auction

On lower value items bidding may go up by £10 a bid. But incremental rises are usually at the auctioneer’s discretion. For example it may go £70, £100, £120, £150, £170, £200 (alternating between £20 and £30). After £500 it may go up by £50 a bid. And after £1,000 by £100.

Normally the auctioneer signals a change. But when several bidders are involved he may not want to break the momentum, in which case the price can shoot up alarmingly.

Consider making a lower offer after sale when bidding at auction

Sometimes the auctioneer will struggle to get any bids at all, which is another reason not to rush in. You may secure a bargain by keeping silent and making a lower offer after the sale.

Check if a lot has sold or not when bidding at auction

If a lot hasn’t sold, an auctioneer may say ‘passed’ or ‘not sold’. But sometimes the auctioneer will bid up to the reserve in an attempt to encourage interest. This can make it difficult to tell whether a lot has sold or not. If you’re interested, check afterwards.

Keep a maximum price in mind when bidding at auction

The golden rule. Have a maximum price in mind, which should include charges of about 25%. By bidding confidently up to your maximum you might discourage competition. Getting into a bidding war is a quick road to ruin.

Tips for buying at auction

Buying art and antiques at auction can be a little intimidating, but also a lot of fun. Here are some tips to help you avoid unpleasant surprises:

Try to view the sale in person at auction

Most auctions have at least one viewing day when you can inspect lots before deciding whether or not to bid. There’s no substitute for examining the goods in person.

What happens if I can’t attend the viewing at auction?

Catalogue photographs can be flattering and written descriptions vague. If a lot catches your eye, ask the saleroom for a condition report which should give you a more complete picture.

How do I know the item at auction isn't a fake?

Some of the frightening number of fakes in circulation can even fool the experts. It’s always worth asking where an item came from. A good provenance (evidence of its history) can be reassuring - as long as that’s not been faked too!

What’s the difference between an ‘estimate’ and a ‘reserve’ at auction?

An estimate (eg £800 - £1200) is a guide price which is often on the low side to encourage bidder interest. A reserve is the lowest price at which the vendor will sell (possibly £700 on a £800 - £1200 estimate).

The reserve is never above the lower estimate which is often the figure at which the auctioneer will start. Sometimes an auctioneer will bid up to the reserve making it difficult to tell whether a lot has been sold or not. Some lots will be sold without reserve.

What will I have to pay on top of the hammer price at auction?

Read a saleroom’s ‘terms and conditions’ but as a rule of thumb add about 25% to the hammer price.

The standard commission is around 20% and for most items (except books) you’ll have to pay VAT on that.

Remember too that few auction houses pack and send. So unless you pick it up yourself, add maybe a further 5% for delivery.

Tips for successful bidding on penny auction websites

You may well have seen penny auctions in adverts, offering to sell the latest gadgets - and even brand new cars - at astonishingly low prices.

Also known as bidding fee auctions, participants pay to make bids, as well as paying the final price of the item if they win it.

Each time you bid, it costs you money

On penny auction websites you have pay to place each bid, irrespective of whether or not you win the bid.

A winning bid could cost you more than on other auction sites

Remember: if you do win the bid, then you may have to pay your bidding fee on top of the item’s full final price.

It you don't win, you still pay

The obvious downside here is that even with unsuccessful bids, you'll end up spending money.

Check the website’s refund policies

Are your bids refundable? Or once you've placed your bid, is your money gone forever? Can you get a refund for unused bids?

Examine penny auction websites' terms and conditions for extra costs per bid

Check to see exactly how much you are being charged per bid. Is it a flat rate, or does the rate vary depending on the value of the item? Is there a delivery charge to pay too?

Take note of what other customers are saying

Are they satisfied or dissatisfied customers? Read online forums, comments and reviews to get a flavour of the site.

Had goods delivered to you by mistake? Know your rights

Do your research

Is using a penny auction site really a better option than using other types of online auction site, such as ebay? Are you getting value for money?

Check if there's a helpline or contact address for customers, should things go wrong

If so, what are your chances of a dispute being successfully resolved? Again, have a look at feedback from other customers.

Watch the auction

If you do decide to bid, then it makes sense to take time to keep an eye on the auction. It's all too easy to place a bid and then forget about it - which is both wasteful and pointless. And always stay tuned to an auction until it closes - you might just be in luck!

Find out more about discounts for the over-50s.

Choose the right time to place a bid

There’s no point placing a bid hours before an auction ends. You’re best off waiting until the very last moment if you’re really keen to win; even five minutes before an auction ends you are likely to see a rival bidder jump in at the last moment to win the bid.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.