Tips for buying at auction

10 December 2014

Buying art and antiques at auction can be a little intimidating, but also a lot of fun. Our guide to buying at auction aims to help you avoid unpleasant surprises.

Tips for selling at auction...

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 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!

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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 are the different ways of bidding at auction?

Perhaps the safest way is to leave a commission bid - telling the saleroom the maximum you are prepared to pay. You might, for example, decide you don’t want to pay above £1,000 on an item with an £800 - £1200 estimate. You should get the item for £800 if there are no other bids.

Bidding in person can be fun, as long as you don’t get carried away. You can also leave with the object if successful.

Bidding by phone is often only available on higher value items. Internet bidding is increasingly popular even though you usually pay an extra 3 % commission. Most salerooms are allied to sites such as

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. Say you bought a picture for £1,000 on the internet (3% extra), that rises to £1,276.

Few auction houses pack and send, so, unless you pick it up yourself, add, perhaps, 5% for delivery making a total of £1,339.80.

Tips for selling at auction...

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.