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Buy it at Auction

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A showroom at Jos. C. O’Neal & Sons Auctions in Laurel displays a diverse assortment of pre-owned furniture.Times are tight. If buying new—and paying for it—doesn’t fit the budget, turn to your local  auction. Not only will you find good prices, you’ll find things that are truly novel.

One of Jos. C. O’Neal & Sons Auctions fall sales is a great example. Liquidating inventory for Webster Furniture, which was going out of business, auctioneer Randy O’Neal saw brand new pieces selling for a fraction of the retail price.

“It kind of threw me for a loop, because primarily, we’re in the antiques business,” O’Neal says. “It was good to see some new faces, because the young crowd, as far as the antiques market goes, is just getting smaller with each passing year.”

Joseph J. Stein, owner of Stuart Kingston, an auction house in Rehoboth Beach, agrees that those new faces are learning the value of finding new and nearly new items at rock-bottom prices. Instead of paying the most a retailer believes it can charge—often a markup of 80 percent to 100 percent—you pay an amount based on how badly someone else wants the same item.

One of Stein’s most recent examples of an amazing bargain was a sofa grouping from Washington Design Center, a trade-only supplier of high-end furnishings. The sofa group originally cost $40,000. It sold at auction for substantially less.

“Once it’s carried off the showroom floor, it’s worth pennies on the dollar,” Stein says. “If people are willing to be prudent and willing to not be in a rush and not go out and spend money on new furniture, if they’re really smart, they’ll go to an auction and they can save a fortune.”

Still, many shoppers don’t consider auctions because of a perception that everything has to be new.

“It seems like there’s a stigma to buying anything that’s second-hand,” O’Neal says. “People want it to be bright and shiny and brand new. But all those negative stigmas go out the window when you’re buying with your pocketbook.”

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An 1815 Philadelphia bracket clock by John Child from Mid-Atlantic Auctions and Appraisals Inc. in GreenvilleThose stigmas can be overcome with more focus on the environmental aspects of buying pre-owned items, dealers say. There’s no excess packaging to dispose of. No additional resources are depleted. And unhealthy off-gassing of chemicals used in manufacturing of new furniture has usually stopped by the time an item goes up for sale.

Once people do convince themselves that better deals might be found at auction, there is a relatively small learning curve on procedure and etiquette.

First, auctions are probably more casual than you think. Even high-end auctions of fine antiques and artwork such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s don’t have dress codes, so don’t assume there will be one for the auction near you.

Second, don’t fear the twitch, the itch or the sneeze. Many auctioneers use numbered paddles to keep track of bidders, so random involuntary movements on your part won’t immediately up the price. If for some reason you do register an unintended bid, good auctioneers will usually let you withdraw it, O’Neal says.

“There is some minor etiquette you have to learn, but, hey, if you have money in your pocket, you can have anything at auction,” says Edward Stinson, owner of Mid-Atlantic Auctions and Appraisals Inc. in Greenville. “The nice thing is you don’t have to buy anything. I suggest when people come to my auction for them to sit and watch, keep your eye on something, and see what it goes for. You don’t want to reach above your means, but you want to buy something of quality.”

Pinpointing that quality is easier than many people think, Stinson says. Though hunting genuine antiques often takes a trained eye to find items of high value, most people can distinguish a quality new article from a piece of junk.

“I could put two pieces of furniture in front of you and ask you to pick the better one, and more likely than not, you will,” Stinson says. “Just make sure it’s sturdy, in good condition and you like it.”

For those looking for high-end reproductions, O’Neal recommends learning about reputable manufacturers such as Kittinger, Baker and Henkel-Harris, then seeking their plates or brands on pieces for sale.

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A George Jensen sterling blossom tea set from Mid-Atlantic Auctions and Appraisals Inc. in GreenvilleHunters of antiques should learn a bit about the periods and styles that appeal to them. Otherwise, intuition is key. Understanding something as simple as dovetail construction and other forms of joinery will hint at quality construction. When you find it, follow your nose.

“My advice is, when you examine an antique or any piece of furniture, look at how it’s made. Stand back and assess whether you think it’s beautiful or looks right,” Stinson says. “Everyone has this ability. You look at a beautiful woman and you just know she’s beautiful. You can do the same with antiques. It’s almost in the eye of the beholder.”

Most auction houses are cash-and-carry, though many have conceded to the widespread use of credit cards, Stein says. Some, however, will charge up to 2 percent extra for credit purchases.

While not being able to take advantage of store-style financing might put some people off, Stinson suggests that buying with only the cash you have on hand is a great way for people to stick to a budget or avoid credit issues. Then there’s the “carry” part. Pre-arrange to get your purchase home, either in your own vehicle or one you’ve hired for the day.

In the end, auction buying is all about getting the best deal you can find. It might take some practice, but the rewards will be worth it, says Stein. “If you have the intelligence and the patience and the desire to shop in a different style and compete against different people, if you know your limitations and how much money you have to spend, you can be a hero, a king.”

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