TYPES OF AUCTIONS: Anything that can be bought or sold can be auctioned, including antiques, art, automobiles, books, commercial furniture and equipment, farm animals and machinery, household goods, jewelry, memorabilia, real estate, stamps and vintage toys.

As their name implies, catalogue auctions put out advance catalogues of the goods to be auctioned. Since catalogues are expensive, this generally means that higher-end items will be going on the block.

The popular estate auctions sell off the contents of a household -- and sometimes the house itself. Often they are done on site rather than in an auction gallery.

Government auctions dispose of surplus, seized and unclaimed property. Federal agencies, such as the General Services Administration, Internal Revenue Service, Customs Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, as well as some state and local agencies, particularly police departments, hold auctions periodically throughout the year. "The U.S. court system has determined that auctions are the best way to set fair-market value," says Troy Graham, an auctioneer specializing in cars and livestock.

Lien auctions, which are similar to the auction described in the story on this page, sell stored merchandise that has been confiscated because of nonpayment of bills. These can include sealed safe-deposit boxes. To enjoy a lien auction, "You have to get over the point of feeling guilty and sorry for the people who lost all their possessions," says one auctiongoer. Ron Beavers of Mount Vernon Auction Center says he encourages lien auction buyers to return any personal papers and photos they find to the unfortunate former owners.

FINDING OUT ABOUT AUCTIONS: Auctions are widely advertised in newspapers and shoppers' guides. Check the classifieds and the larger display ads. Many auction houses and government entities list upcoming auctions on their Web sites.

PRICE RANGE: Nothing is too big or too small to auction. For example, at the Wednesday night auctions at Tillett's Auction Barn in Arcola, bidding can start at $1. At the other end of the scale, real estate auctioneer Lynn Gardner not long ago auctioned off a property for $1.4 million.

PROCEDURE: Auctions generally have a preview period of anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of days, during which the "lots," or goods, can be inspected. Ask the auction house for the preview times. Some auction houses also provide pictures of the goods on their Web sites. As a rule, auctions require registration to participate (bring a picture ID) and then issue a numbered card to hold up during the bidding. "As always, cash is king," says Ron Leftwich, an auctioneer for the Culpeper Auction Center. Some auction houses take checks and credit cards; some take one but not the other, so inquire beforehand. Some also tack on a service charge to credit card purchases.


Don't expect to make a killing. "That's the biggest stigma about auctions," says real estate auctioneer Gardner. "We don't sell things for less; we sell at what the market will bear."

Do your homework. If you are interested in antique silver flatware, check the patterns out in books and antiques stores so you know what constitutes a bargain. Then use the preview to inspect the merchandise. Before the auctioneer gets to the item that interests you, go back and look it over again. "Whether it's an antique or a home, you buy it, it's yours as-is," Gardner warns.

Set your price limit ahead of time. "Bid with your head, not your heart," says Graham. "It's human emotion to get carried away, and Americans don't like to lose -- even a boxful of dishes. That's where the emotion comes in." Graham has three sage words of advice for people who want to maintain restraint in the heat of the bidding battle: "Bring your spouse."

-- M.J. McAteer