Harold M. Smith
Smith Auction Company
Serving the tri-state area since 1982
Auction & Private Purchase Options
DE NJ PA Auctioneers
Annette T. Smith
The auction trade -- what we think we see, is what we'll really get...
Just try to find any Chester County weekend when some type of auction or estate sale isn't taking place. As a western suburban spectator sport, the art of the auction has to make anybody's Top Ten list.
The lure can seem irresistible: you get the opportunity to treasure hunt, peek behind the scenes at someone else's life and listen to the auction-master in full, throaty form, all for the price (usually) of merely showing up. Of course, the temptation to actually raise your hand and bid on something that might be pure junk can be pretty overwhelming, too. But, that's the price you pay for voyeurism.
Not that these Chester County sales events are anything new. Hardly. Early cultures like our Native Americans and the Ancient Romans thought it was a bang up way to clean house or increase their stash of wampum-on-the-hoof.
More recently, televised sales of the possessions of the rich and famous have, no doubt, contributed their fair share to encourage the current auction craze. Consider Jackie O's celeb garage sale of a couple years ago, which netted the family a cool $44 million -- eight times more than they or Christie's expected.
Living as we do smack in the middle of one of the nation's hotbeds of potential "goods", it's easy to believe that what we think we see at any one of our innumerable auction houses is what we'll really get. What's really in front of us, however, is a risky business with probably more tricks than horse trading; so, if you're going to play with the big boys, you'd better know the game.
First and last rule -- an auction is not a yard sale, tag sale, or garage sale...
All those are sales put on by owners of goods who wish to sell the same by assigning a price to each, publicizing the day of the sale and preparing themselves for hoards of potential buyers, many of whom indulge in "early birding", arriving anywhere from two hours to two days early, in an attempt to beat the competition to that exquisite piece of $300 Waterford crystal available for just $3 to the buyer who pounces first.
In the most simplistic terms: An auction is a sale of goods which takes place at a predetermined, widely-publicized time in an established auction house, or at a public space rented by the action, or on the grounds of a property from which the goods were obtained.
An auctioneer sells the items to the highest bidder in the traditional "going, going, SOLD!" method; he gets a percentage of the gross sales and the person or people who consigned the contents of the sale receive the rest. In general, the actual purchase price of a piece includes the final bid price, plus 10 percent (varies) auction house commission, plus state sales tax combined.
An auction then, is, in a sense, pure middleman...
The auctioneer may buy an entire "estate" of goods, outright, to auction through his own company, or he may obtain them on consignment from those who own or inherited the goods, or from people who have purchased items elsewhere with the sole purpose of consigning them to auction, or antique dealers looking to rid themselves of a piece which has been gathering dust in their shop forever. The auctioneer may even be selling items that he received from museums intent on tidying up their storage areas.
These sales vary in content from the highest quality period antiques to cardboard boxes of broken Barbies. The "best" items are publicized through local newspapers and the appropriate regional or even national magazines, and there is always a "preview", usually the day before the auction and for a couple of hours prior to the starting time.
The preview period is crucial since it's the only time during which prospective buyers may closely examine the items they're interested in. Once that gavel comes down, the item is sold, as is, and no one is going to sympathize with the guy who mistook a print for a painting because he didn't examine it closely enough, prior to bidding.
In Pennsylvania, auctioneering is not a pastime; it's a career, and one that's not very easy to break into.
All auctioneers are suppose to be licensed or serving their (minimal) two-year apprenticeships under one who is. They must be trained, bonded, tested and board-certified prior to licensing. The course of study at a professional auction school in Pennsylvania takes about a year and costs approximately $2500.
Our Commonwealth is renowned as the toughest in the country in which to obtain a license. The licensing of auctioneers is protected by state mandate; so are the always-murky practices that govern the darkside of the auction business. Harrisburg isn't infallible, but at least the state does assume some sort of professional responsibility.
Before you begin to relax, though, you better be prepared for the low life nature of the business including misrepresentation and fraud otherwise known as AUCTION-CAUTION.
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