Time to Sell: The Ins and Outs of Auctioning a Collection

As collectors, we enjoy the hunt for objects, the discovery and, most importantly, the acquisition of these items. The available space to display a collection can slowly take over more and more of one’s home. Inevitably, every collector must face the question of what to do with some or all of the objects in their collection.

The Upside and Downside of Selling at Auction

Auctions can be an effective option for dispersing a large collection. An auction can handle several hundred items, and you can sell everything in one go or break up the collection and sell it over two or three auctions.

The downside of selling at auction is that all items will be subject to the current market conditions, which may or may not favour all items in a given collection. Typically, some items will do extremely well, some will do poorly, and the bulk will fetch average prices. The upper end of a collection can push things over the goal line into a reasonably profitable sale.

I do not recommend going the auction route if your goal is to obtain high prices for items across the board. Most collections include a range of items, not all of which are currently fetching high prices.

Internet Auctions

In recent years, we have seen the emergence of Internet auction services that provide collectors with a digital platform to sell their items. The platform will enable you to schedule an auction and upload digital photographs and descriptions. Then, the auction takes place completely online.

You can do all the work or have the auction platform staff handle the work, including being on-site to transfer sold items to buyers. Each platform’s fee is dependent on how much work they do on your behalf. This model relies on the power of the Internet to attract buyers and can work very well.

What to Expect From a Traditional Auction

Most auctioneers will want the collector to agree to a contract (verbal or written) that stipulates the various criteria to which the sale will be subject. First among these is the commission charged by the auction house for selling the items. Commission rates can range from 10 to 30 percent and these figures can be negotiable. The higher the value of your items, the more negotiating leverage you’ll have. Conversely, if your collection has a lower market value you’ll likely end up paying a 30 percent commission.

At most auctions, every successful buyer must pay a “buyer’s premium” (some collectors call it a penalty), which can range from 5 to 25 percent of the item’s sale price. These funds go directly to the auctioneer along with the commission you’re paying.

Quality photography is important at any auction. Photography, and in some cases video, can enhance the items and make them more attractive to potential buyers. As a consigner, you typically pay for the photography. In my case, the charge was $4.50 per item or lot — 200 lots cost $900 to photograph.

Another expense to consider is the safe transport of your collection to the auction hall.

Someone will have to write descriptions of each of the items. The auction house will charge for this service and for an accompanying printed catalogue, should you choose to have one.

Most auctioneers will assign a pre-sale estimate to each item in a collection — this can be tricky. If the estimate is too high, it may discourage bidders from participating. If the estimate is too low, it can be be less motivating to buyers. Auctioneers want a profitable sale, so they may assign higher estimate to help reach that goal. In my case, I believe that overly aggressive estimates may have hurt our sale. After all, the goal is to encourage bidding, not discourage it. Items that have strong value in the current market can be fairly accurately estimated. However, an aggressive estimate will not save an item that has weak value in the market.

The Hybrid-Auction Experience

My wife and I recently sold the bulk of our collection at a hybrid online and in-person auction. We auctioned more than 200 items, which may seem like a lot, but our auction house wanted 350 lots. After all, if they are all set up to sell, they may as well sell for eight hours rather than just four or five. For this reason, they combined our sale with another smaller collection.

Our collection had some very fine items, including two pieces of quite rare Quebec antique furniture and four folk paintings by well known Atlantic Canada artists. There were also a half-dozen wood carvings by arguably the most talented carver in all of Quebec. But there were also many items of average quality: objects that we collected and enjoyed owning but that did not have high market value.

We brought all the objects to the auction hall and a date was set several weeks in advance. Bidders were welcome to attend in person to bid or to view and bid through one of two on line auction platforms. I wrote the online catalogue describing each item in detail and included comments on the condition of each item.

The Internet has had a profound impact on auctions and most people participate online, where each item is numbered and described in detail. In our case, there were 30 to 40 people in the hall and about 300 people on line watching the sale — and the bulk of the sales went to Internet buyers.

As I expected, our rare items did very well. But, very good pieces of furniture and art by lesser-known artists faired poorly. It was disappointing to see excellent pieces sell for a fraction of what they would have brought 20 years ago.

A Brutal and Successful Experience

Overall, the auction experience met our goals, but it was a brutal way to dispose of a collection. Collectors and dealers may want your items but only at a certain price.

We made excellent returns on some of our items but most sold for average prices. Some did quite poorly and, as mentioned, and it pains me to think about a few very fine pieces that sold for a fraction of what I thought they should bring. The bulk of our items sold and about a dozen items were passed over. I am busy now putting those items up online and they are already selling.

An 80-year-old buyer at our auction perhaps summed up the crap-shoot that is the auction “game”. The octogenarian buyer paid $7,200 for a little gem of a Quebec V-box. Before leaving the hall, he leaned on his cane, gave me a wink, and said, “I was surprised to get it for that price. I would have paid a lot more!”

Selling our collection at auction was a labour-intensive and emotional experience, but at the end of the day, our goal was met: our antiques and collectibles were gone. We have simplified our domestic lives — but are we finished collecting? No. If we see something we like, we’ll buy it. We may have sold most of our collection, but we are not finished as collectors.

Shaun Markey has been collecting antique country furniture and folk art for 40 years. He has authored two books on the topic: Folk Art in the Attic and Antique Memories. Find out more about Shaun and his collection on his author website.