My First Auction

Image courtesy of Northeast Auctions

On Sunday Greg and I attended our first auction in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. I’ve been intimated by the process and was nervous about the whole idea of bidding. Would I over bid? Or bid by accident?

I got a tip about this particular auction a few weeks ago at a Historic New England workshop and heard a few of their 4-drawer chests would be auctioned off at Northeast. I scoured the auction catalog and found the bowfront chest above. The piece had no notation coming from Historic New England’s collection but I was able to find the chest in their Collections Access section.

Image courtesy of Historic New England

The maker unknown, dated 1800-1810, and described as, “Chest of drawers with four graduated bowfront drawers; cock beading; bail handles; ogee bracket feet.” In the above photo you’ll notice one of the legs is badly damaged. In the top photo supplied by Northeast Auction the leg looks as if it’s been repaired? Northeast notes the piece as: New England Chippendale Bow Front Chest of Drawers.

I went into full daydream mode for weeks with this chest and where I would put it in my den. The cherry and the bowfront were gorgeous; I really liked the size and how the chest wasn’t heavily ornamented with veneers.

When we arrived at the auction we were able to preview all the items. I was able to inspect the chest, open all the drawers and take a closer look at the repair done to the leg. I registered with the auction by supplying my driver’s license and signing off on a form that made me aware of the 18% buyer’s premium and then I received a number card to bid. The buyer’s premium is a fee imposed by the auction house in addition to the hammer price. It’s something to keep in mind when bidding on items. If you’re looking at passed auctions you’ll often notice two numbers. One is with the buyer’s premium and the other is without premium.

Images courtesy of Northeast Auctions

I also checked out two rugs I spotted in the catalog; the auction house rolled out both for me and let me view outdoors. I tend to like the more worn antique rugs with some fading. The above is a large Khorrossan and below a smaller Kuba rug.

Once the auction started I was surprised how quickly they moved through items. Tea sets and bowls went for thousands of dollars. What had I got myself into? The room was full of dealers with much larger bank accounts then me. Was I out of my league?

As we moved closer and closer to the lot I got really nervous and overheated. I removed my number stuck between the pages of my catalog and got ready. The bidding started on Lot 588 and within moments I had bid a few times. I got nervous and was out bid. I was devastated. A few more chests came up that had similar estimates that went for about half the price. Why? We left before the rugs came up; I was too depressed and I wasn’t that in love with them. We went out for lobster rolls and tried to come with tactics on how to win next time.

In the end it was a learning experience—how an auction is run and I got over my fear of bidding. And I realized I have a thing for Chippendale 4-drawer chests with beautiful ogee feet. Will I ever find another?

Related Posts:
Learning More About Early American Antiques
New Find! Blanket Chest
New Finds: Table, Marble Bowl, and Oil Painting
Heritage Houses at Strawbery Banke

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

You may also like


  1. i remember my first auction. i let so many items go that i should have bid on b/c i was saving up for the good stuff. apparently everyone else was too. there were so many dealers there that i was out bid on the three items i really wanted. i was so frustrated. {and there was no place to go for a lobster roll to soothe my sorrows here in cincinnati.} you get smarter as you go. i have found really great pieces at auctions with smaller lots in more remote areas or on days when a number of other auctions are scheduled. i often do online auctions, where you can go to the estate to preview the items earlier in the week and then bid online on the weekend. they can get hairy too and you can end up in bidding wars and easily get carried away. don’t worry, you’ll find your perfect chest.


  2. Oh my gosh I’m sure we have that chest in my mom’s house. We keep ancient linens and things in it. I’ve Never really noticed it before I saw your post but I’ll have to have a good look next time im there and make sure it doesn’t get lost to a step-sibling or someone one day. I give you a lot of credit for doing the auction thing. My cousin used to make some cash buying things on auction and restoring them. She showed me how to look for a quality piece of furniture, like the drawer joints (I have no idea what they are called.) regardless, auctions make me nervous too so well done.


  3. You obviously have a good eye anyway (a giveaway when you set your heart on the one which went for a much higher price!). And Kathy, above, is right – one day you’ll look around, your home will be full of the treasures you’ve hunted down – and you’ll have to start thinking about selling at auction…believe me can it can happen much sooner than you think, even on a tight budget, because you learn so quickly by being able to get up close and handle the furniture. Even if you don’t mean to buy, go to smart auctions just to really look at the nice pieces. And have fun – you will!


  4. You are living my dream, auctions and lobster rolls, lol. I can never go to an auction because they’re always during work. Someday! This is all really helpful information though.


  5. oh Katy … so sad you did not win your gorgeous chest. I love going to auctions but you definitely learn quickly how they work. If you really want something it is best to wait to bid on it until the end … let the others bid it up and come in right before it closes that way people are usually at the end of their budgets or over the thrill of it all. Check estate auctions too as the prices are a bit better. Oh and ALWAYS stay to the very end of the auctions as that is when the best deals are. In the past I have won a $3 buffet + $1 steamer trunk + $4 oak commode, etc. all at the end of the auctions. Box lots are also great too.
    Good luck next time!


  6. Auctions can be fun, or a grueling, disappointing waste of time. It really depends on a lot of things. I’ve regularly sat through some auctions that had about FOUR HOURS worth of dishes and glass knick-knacks, tea cups and plates before they got to any of the items I wanted, only to be outbid. On the other hand, I’ve been to a few auctions with low attendance, where you can get absolute bargains. Other times, the item you want is worth paying for, but no other dealers will bother to pay the price since they can’t sell it for double in their shop. This was the case on a beautiful domed French clock that I picked up for a very nice price.

    Then there are auctions that run for so long that by the end a lot of people have left, and you can get quality items for pennies on the dollar. I still kick myself for not buying a gorgeous (but damaged) mahogany empire dresser/side board for TWENTY BUCKS! I just didn’t want to deal with having to transport it and store it, since I was in an apartment at the time with limited space.


  7. I told you we should have asked the guy sitting in front of us to bid on that chest. He had the #666; he was the devil, nobody was bidding against him!


  8. katy
    I use to be you, bidding my heart out at auctions, I would come home depressed because I didnt win and I never thought there would be another one like it.
    Then one day when my house was full and I had no place to put another thing I discovered that there is always more of what your heart desires and there is always better!
    If you are patient you will find another beautiful chest at the price you are willing to pay …… and the chest will probably be even better!

    I adore the rugs and the chest, excellent choices!!!!


  9. For me the biggest thing about auctions is knowing yourself. I get a bit stubborn on a certain price point and have lost items for only a small amount above it that I probably would have felt fine paying. I have learned to be more flexible, not to be too cheap (which makes me stubborn) but also to know when to fold! It took a lot of auction heartache… Yes, long lost Victorian chesterfield, I’m talking to you. Better luck next time!!


  10. That is fantastic how you planned your trip to the auction and did your research! You are right to look at it as a learning experience and should feel some solace in that no experience is ever wasted… Also, you must have good taste since your chest, although similar to the others, was probably better quality as it went for so much more! I would love to go to an auction sometime — thanks for explaining how it works!


  11. i’m sorry you didn’t get the chest, but you’ll probably find something just as nice along the way. you will.

    we have been collectors for over 25 years and i know my personality is not suited to auctions. i get nervous simply waiting in line at an antique show and if i can see something i like while waiting, forget it! i imagine it in my home and then get really anxious (competitive).

    there’s a shop in sag harbor, ny called sage street antiques. it is the best. you’ll see the same people waiting on line to get in on a beautiful summer day and if you get in with the first group it is fantastic!

    if you can keep your head and stick with your budget though like you did, auctions are a great opportunity for a good buy and fun.


  12. Oh, I think I would find this process nerve-wrecking. I hate rollercoasters! But, definitely I’m sure you’ll win in the end and then you’ll have something wonderful to show for it and you’ll never forget the story.


  13. I felt the same things the first time I bid at an auction — I was terrified that I’d scratch my nose and wind up bidding inadvertently!

    Sorry you didn’t get that chest, but good for you for not going crazy and bidding more than you’d planned to.

    Check out smaller local auctions for good stuff with lower buyers premiums. There are tons out here in Western Mass and Northern CT.


  14. I’ve bought and sold a lot of artwork at auction and they’re hugely unpredictable. They are certainly unnerving when you first start out so it’s good to go and just watch to familiarize yourself with the process. It’s also really important to know value unless you find a piece that’s just perfect for a specific use/place and then you need to set your own value based on that importance.

    Some auction houses will put low estimates on nice things to generate a lot of interest; others estimate fairly. But there’s always the unknown the right person, right time. I’ve seen $4000 paintings sell for $40000 just because two people NEEDED it. And then other things fall flat.

    You were smart to walk away and not pay too much. You lost a chest but you got a wealth of knowledge at the same time.


  15. I’m sorry you didn’t get your piece! You’ll get something you love eventually and you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you didn’t overpay ;-)

    Try an auction at Kaminski in Beverly – they have an American furniture auction coming up over Thanksgiving.


  16. I also like Grogan []. I have bought things at auction by “absentee bid”- much less waiting around and you can determine a max you are willing to pay. I know you will find another bowfront chest that you adore! ; )


  17. I’m sorry you didn’t win it. I know how disappointing it is when you have your heart set on a piece at auction.

    The good news is that there are many chests like it being auctioned in the Boston area. As others have mentioned, Skinner gets a lot of them – their Discovery Country Americana auction is tomorrow (Discovery Studio Art today) if you’re looking for something inexpensive. More expensive are the Skinner American Furniture and Decorative Art Auctions, and they have a few lots like “your” chest every single time.

    My advice with Skinner’s pricier auctions is to take their estimates with an enormous grain of salt. In my experience, they are consistently MUCH too low, so you set your heart on something that seems comfortably within your price range and then it shoots up to triple or quadruple the high estimate. ($2000 is a hecka long way from $6500 plus 25% in taxes and buyer’s premium). It’s happened to me at the past four European Furniture auctions and pissed me off to the point that I am on the verge of a Skinner downtown location boycott, even though I’m completely hooked on their auction scene.


  18. Oh, boo! But at least you got your first time out of the way.

    We went to an auction preview last month in Newbury (McInnis) the morning of the auction – it was so awesome and exciting to see all the goodies, but I was way too intimidated to stay and bid. It was a huge turnout, and I heard they were there well into the evening. These people are hard core! But I keep hearing of people getting treasures for a steal (like what John said above) so I’m determined to try one out.


  19. Sorry you didn’t “win” the chest, but there will be others in the future. Auctions are a great way to furnish old homes. We have filled up our old saltbox with cool antique New England pieces purchased at auction for less than it would have cost to buy new things from Pottery Barn or Ethan Allen. Northeast is a great operation, but keep an eye on Eldreds, Skinner, Garths and Pook & Pook’s auctions, too. They all specialize in American furniture and decorative arts, and you can get some great deals with patience. If you haven’t yet, take a look at They allow you to bid online at many auctions, and you can set up alerts so that you are notified when an item that meets your criteria comes up for auction. It may take a while, but I’m sure you will end up with pieces that you love, and the hunt can be a lot of fun. Good luck!