Getting in on the Auction

April 26, 2013

Can I show you my chair?  I know you want it, the wingback arms whispering that you should lean back, curl up, relax. The chevron flannel fabric. The clean lines. The price? $18. True, I almost got fired over this beauty. The auctioneer at Weschler’s was taking his sweet time working his way down the row, and my boss’ texts started coming more frequently. “PLEASE COME BACK TO WORK. We’re holding the meeting for you.” But I couldn’t pull away. It was my first-ever visit to an auction house, and I was hooked.

Auction houses were cool back when people bought things in person, and they’re making a comeback thanks to the sluggish economy.

Auctions release their treasures only to the patient: Meander down aisles of furniture, fabric, art and jewelry displays at a preview until you find an Edwardian engagement ring, an industrial bookcase or a vintage race-car poster. Yes, on auction day, you might get outbid by the dealer who’d just been giving you her bidding tips. But if you’re lucky, you walk away with a steal.

“I bought a pair of porcelain and bronze wall sconces at an auction for $250,” Kevin Bruneau told me recently. A picker/pro on PBS’ “Market Warriors,” he knew the sconces were well-made but couldn’t have guessed their origin. “Deep inside the cavity in the back, I could see marks, but I couldn’t make them out. I got them home, took them apart and discovered they were marked for Nicholas II of Russia. With some research, I found out they were actually one of about 200 pairs made for one of his castles. I resold them for $11,600.”

Even if you’re not seeking the czar’s discards, auctions are a cool way to furnish your pad. You’re shopping where the antique dealers buy — so you’re paying maybe half what you’d pay at their retail stores. There’s also something inherently chic about the phrase, “purchased at auction.” Plus, auction day offers all the adrenaline of a Vegas casino.

A pal introduced me to auctions last month, pulling up an iPhone photo of the Chinese cabinet she bought for $5 and refinished in glossy white paint. Glam! Then she told me that Weschler’s, the grandpa of D.C. auction houses, is right next to my office in Chinatown. My obsession began.

Weschler’s, like many auctions, operates simply: Register to get a bidding number or paddle (regulars often don’t use them, instead relying on eye contact or hand signals with an auctioneer who knows them). Then, get into the action, where an auctioneer goes across the room, field, wherever, pointing at lots (items for sale, both single and sometimes in groups of, say, pots or plates) and, starting at the low end of the price range, calling for bids until the auctioneer “hammers” (often with a gavel) or sells an item to the higher bidder.

At my first auction, I spotted the wingback chair right away and asked a friendly dealer for advice. “I love the fabric,” she said. “Try sitting in it to be sure it’s structurally sound.” My mentor turned out to be Pixie Windsor, buying for her eccentric 14th Street shop, Miss Pixie’s Furnishings and Whatnot. She advises newbies to set a top amount they’re willing to spend on each piece so they don’t get carried away. “Have fun, and don’t worry about how much something might be worth,” she says. “If you love it, buy it.”

While I waited for the auctioneer to get to my chair, I discovered a salvaged-wood picture frame. It housed a creepy painting — Socrates meets “The Old Man and the Sea” — but the frame rocked. Suddenly the auctioneer was right there asking for an initial bid, and I hoisted my bidder’s card. $15. A New York dealer raised it to $20; we raced up to $55. I bid one last time and won it for $60. I overspent. But I love it so.

It was a normal newbie mistake, Bruneau told me later. “At a flea, you can usually enjoy the day and walk around, take your time and have fun,” he said. “Auctions are fast-paced and you have split seconds to make a decision. Once you bid on it and the auctioneer hammers it to you, you own it.”

Finally we got to my chair. Bidding started at $30. I held my breath, but nobody bid. The price kept dropping until I won it for $18. One of my new auction friends gave me a high five, as my boss texted: “GET UP HERE. NOW.”

But when I lugged the wingback up to my office later that day, my boss eased himself into the chair and sighed in pleasure. I was forgiven. The next week, he came with me to auction.

Written by Express contributor Christie Findlay

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