The most fun I ever had without leaving town or breaking the law was at a University of Texas auction. In a warehouse at the J. J. Pickle Research Campus in North Austin, mountains of computers, office furniture, and scrap metal awaited the highest bidder. Within these heaps of common objects were bizarre gems, one-of-a-kind gizmos created especially for an esoteric research project and then jettisoned. No one could put a name or a purpose to these thingamajigs, but the engineer types at the auction lusted after them nonetheless. For some reason I burned with desire for 150 aluminum balls the size of grapefruit and as precisely machined as a spacecraft’s airlock.

I lost the balls to a possessed artist, a loss I still dream about, but I won what I had come for: an old wooden lab cabinet for my kitchen. The nine-foot beauty, made for the chemistry department by the university carpentry shop in the thirties, is my favorite possession, even though hunting for utensils and spices in its 24 little drawers can be a frustrating game of concentration. And every time I look at it, my chronic case of auction fever flares up.

You can buy everything but time at auctions, from airplanes and antiques to real estate and restaurant equipment—not to mention the most unusual Christmas presents you’ll ever give (anyone for a pedal-driven knife sharpener? a porcelain hand holding a lady’s slipper? a four-inch-tall outboard motor that really works?). Every large city in the state has at least one auction house that holds regularly scheduled sales. Add to those the Internal Revenue Service and U.S. Customs Service auctions, government- and university-surplus auctions, and estate and charity auctions, and an auction addict can get a fix nearly any day of the year.

Forget the auctions of Hollywood’s imagination, where a nervous twitch can buy a multi-million-dollar Van Gogh. To bid, you must first register at the door, providing such vital statistics as your name, address, phone number, and driver’s license number. (At a few auctions, mainly those involving IRS seizures, you also have to shell out a refundable deposit of a couple hundred dollars—in cash.) After registering, you are given a bid card printed with a number that’s large enough for Mr. Magoo to read from across the room. This card is your entrée into the thrilling world of bidding at auctions.

Auction Houses

THE MAJORITY OF PUBLIC AUCTIONS are held regularly at permanent auction houses, most of which specialize in “antiques.” (This term is used loosely; “used furniture” would be more appropriate but less inviting.) Someone in Europe was terribly busy in the twenties and thirties making thousands of plebeian armoires, dressers, bed frames, and vanities of soft wood covered with oak, walnut, or mahogany veneer. Today workers in Indonesia crank out Chippendale reproductions—secretaries, coffee tables, and fern stands—made from mahogany stained oxblood red. The shipping lanes must be gridlocked with ocean freighters headed for Texas, their holds crammed with these two styles of furniture, the mashed potatoes of the auction buffet. However, I’m always looking for the spicy tidbits—not the expensive, but the unique. And while few delightfully peculiar items make it to the block here, faithful attendance at your local auction house will turn up the occasional steal or quirky collectible.

These auction houses range from the pseudo-swanky to the downright dirty, from big-city sophisticated to corn-pone country. It’s tempting to believe that the best bargains can be found at the dustier, hotter, and more secluded auction houses, but discomfort doesn’t guarantee deals. I’ve watched sweltering bidders at a cramped and noisy Blanco auction drive the price of a homemade Coca-Cola trash can to obscene heights, while nonchalant buyers sipping wine in the air-conditioned comfort of a Houston showroom snatched up an 1870 lap desk and a silver-plated compote at thrift-store prices.

Auction-going isn’t shopping; it’s consumer warfare. And some auction houses aren’t entirely reputable. How can you identify the ones that are? “Make sure there’s adequate preview time,” says San Antonio auctioneer Gene Vogt. “We have people come to town and have what we call hit-and-run sales. They’ll get with a real estate agent, stuff an empty house with new junk, then say, ‘This is an estate auction with five hundred pieces, and you have an hour to preview the merchandise.’ That’s not enough time.” Unscrupulous auctioneers will plant bidders in the audience to jack up the price. Or they’ll take “air bids,” which are as substantial as they sound. “Those bids usually come from somebody in the back of the room,” says Vogt, “which might turn out to be the Dr Pepper machine.”

Jerry Hart, whose family has been in the auction business in Houston for 59 years, suggests that you attend a couple of auctions before you start bidding and take advantage of the preview inspection, not only to poke around under tables and in boxes, but also to quiz auction-house employees about what certain pieces are worth and ask other customers about the auctioneer’s reputation. Vogt concurs: “If someone has anything nasty to say about somebody, they’ll say it. It’s human nature.”

To find out what auctions are being held in your area, look in the classified section of your newspaper. If the partial listings of sale items in the ads aren’t tantalizing enough, get on the auction company’s mailing list. The catalogs and announcements you’ll receive can range from plain postcards to slick multipage brochures with photographs, detailed descriptions, and estimated values of auction highlights. These more elaborate catalogs can serve as the Cliff Notes of antique appraisal and collection.

Astute auction houses are clicking to the benefits of the Internet; it’s quicker and cheaper to update their catalogs on the Web rather than in cumbersome mailings. Garrett Galleries of Dallas tempts surfers with color photos of some of its pricier items, like a nineteenth-century gilt-wood throne chair fit for a large and pretentious king. Austin auctioneer Ross Featherston’s site ( displays a grid of thumbnail photos representing typical items from his weekly auctions; click on a tiny image for a more expansive view of pottery, sideboards, and drop-leaf tables. The Hart Galleries home page offers auction-going advice as well as previews of upcoming sale items ( And Gebhardt’s Antique Auction House, which holds forth every Thursday night in Lewisville, north of Dallas, creates suspense by adding to the listing each day as the container of goodies is unloaded (; 800-219-0545).

I couldn’t cover all the regular auctions in Texas in a lifetime, even if I bought a Lear jet at the first one, but here’s a taste of their infinite variety. Most of them accept credit cards and personal checks, and most will arrange delivery within their area.

Garrett Galleries, 1800 Irving Boulevard, Dallas, 214-742-4343, 800-594-7933; auctions monthly. By offering free beer and wine—albeit cheap beer and wine—Garrett Galleries makes clear its intention to rise a step above the warehouse—strip mall fray. Some of the bronze sculptures and art nouveau Gallé lamps auctioned at the sale I attended were desirable enough to generate phone bids from as far away as New York City. An unassuming woman, who looked and dressed a lot like my mom, sat next to me. She was bidding against these long-distance collectors on a thirties Chiparus bronze of a woman hugging a lion. Actually, her husband was doing the bidding. When it started, he moved to the back of the room. She said she wasn’t nervous, but she whispered, “I’m not going to turn around,” and kept asking me, “Is he still bidding? Did he stop? Oh, we’re not going to get it. He won’t go that high.” She seemed disappointed when they lost the piece (it went for $5,250) but said, “There’ll always be another”—the words of a seasoned auctiongoer. The prices for merchandise reminded me of one of those high-low comparisons of similar decors in slick home magazines: a Woolfson porcelain vase ($150) or a highly collectible Schneider art-glass vase ($1,000)? A bronze-plated jardiniere ($300) or a cast-bronze planter ($700)? Will you be satisfied with an art deco china cabinet ($350) or will your tastes demand a Victorian buffet ($1,125)?

Somerset Auctioneers and Appraisers, 1205 Slocum Street, Dallas, 214-760-7065; auctions at least once a month. The atmosphere at this market-district warehouse was somber. Fortunately, the merchandise was much more playful. A dainty purple enamel wood-burning stove with mica windows ($165), a couple of rhinestone tiaras and a coronet ($120), a brass chandelier that resembled a pregnant spider ($87.50), and a copper jardiniere with two winged nymphs for handles ($70) topped my list of favorites. Savvy shoppers bought quality furniture at wholesale prices: an antique marble-topped mahogany nightstand and round table ($100 each), a Louis XVI—style armoire ($700), and a couple of oak chairs ($40 each). I gloated over my purchase, an old tin washtub ($35), for days.

Hart Galleries, 2301 South Voss, Houston, 713-266-3500, 800-284-2783; weekend auctions every three or four weeks. The classiest act in the bunch, if for no other reason than its (comparatively) stupendous selection of food: a taco bar, pita sandwiches, and salads (you wouldn’t believe how much people eat at auctions). The Harts must realize a bidder has got to keep up his strength for their two- and three-day sales. If nothing in the extensive catalog tickles your fancy, before auction day you can ask that items from the showroom floor downstairs be brought up for bid. Closed-circuit TV monitors are scattered around the room to give wandering bidders a close-up view of even the tiniest of items, like French scent bottles in a leather case ($70), as they’re auctioned. Auctioneer Jerry Hart is gracious and encouraging, slipping compliments like “Good opening bid” into his gentle chant. This technique worked well on bidders who competed for an antique English drop-leaf gateleg table ($1,600), an 1880 carved-walnut washstand ($1,750), and an inlaid-mahogany wardrobe ($1,500; “Mark that cheap,” said Hart). I liked an 1890 teak wardrobe, stripped but still showing traces of the original decorative paint job (I should’ve bought it for $350). Although Hart has auctioned items for as much as $825,000 (a painting by American artist Theodore Robinson), bargain hunters will head for his “garage sale” auctions, held three or four times a year, when the “loose ends” from estates and consignments hit the block.

Kuehnert’s Auction Gallery, 8719 Katy Freeway, Houston, 713-827-7835; auctions every Thursday night. Blame it on the late hour, the caffeine overload, the cantankerous style of the auctioneer, or the silent television set that was tuned to the Houston Rockets game during their final, ill-fated attempt to make the 1997 NBA championship series. Whatever the reason, I caught a virulent case of the fever at this strip mall auction house. I came home with a large silver candelabrum ($70), two ratty wool throw rugs ($20 for both), and two framed Ansel Adams “prints” that look suspiciously like greeting cards ($15 for both). What I really wanted was the stuff in one of the glass cases lined up in front of the auctioneer’s podium, whose contents were being sold in a grab-bag approach—some junk, some treasures, who knows? I was too slow on the uptake, however, to snag the collection of rhinestone brooches, silver-and-turquoise baubles, plastic costume jewelry, and oddities like a pewter hedgehog pin and old Boy Scout badges (more than a hundred doodads for $60). If I’d had my truck, I might have bid on a cushy old chair with carved arms ($125), a floor lamp whose shade sported more fringe than a hootchy-kootchy dancer ($100), or an ornate marble-topped buffet ($500), although I wasn’t tempted at all by the life-size bronze sculpture of a man slitting another man’s throat ($4,750). After a couple of hours, auctioneer Al Kuehnert’s relentless criticism of the men toting the furniture around made me uncomfortable, but the couple next to me said it was just part of the show.

Austin Auction Company, 8425 Anderson Mill Road, Austin, 512-258-5479; auctions every Saturday night. Some of the Italian antiques auctioned by owner Ross Featherston one Saturday night looked as if they’d come to America from a trailer park on the outskirts of Rome. If you judge your furnishings on a cost-per-linear-foot basis, aesthetics be damned, there were good deals on ten-foot-wide armoires covered in burled veneer and studded with gilded brass curlicues ($400). A woman who said she owned “every restaurant in West Texas” was snatching up the matching sideboards ($250). Scattered among these monsters were quality pieces, like an Eastlake-style dresser with a marble top, a beveled mirror, and whimsical botanical finials that might have been carved by Dr. Seuss ($1,200). If your taste in artwork—or at least in picture frames—leans toward the baroque, you would have been smitten by an original oil of dew-kissed peonies in an elaborate gilded frame ($175).

Vogt Auction Gallery, 2415 Boardwalk Street, San Antonio, 210-822-6155; auctions every Tuesday night. There is no catalog, no buyer’s premium, and no ostentation here—although, says Gene Vogt, “We do have AC and carpet, and we wear suits.” A wacky console that looked as if it had come direct from the Tiki Tiki Room ($25) and a headless cement garden statue (I bought it for $5) were auctioned off alongside a handsome oak library table ($175), an Arts and Crafts—style leaded-glass window ($110), and a pudgy chrome teapot ($70). Since auctioneer Vogt has spent ten years teaching about auctions, his sales are a concentrated education for beginners. Vogt enjoys a loyal following among seasoned auctiongoers as well; one woman told me she’d been coming to his sales for eighteen years and figured she had “$10,000 worth of Gene’s stuff” in her house. That’s an awful lot of headless statues.

John McClellan, The Auctioneer, Inc., 4721 Texas Highway 123, San Marcos, 512-353-3838; auctions the first Monday of the month and every Thursday night. McClellan is a perpetual-motion machine: Tap his nervous energy and you could shut down the oil fields of the world. I’d be jittery too if I was selling my things so cheap, even if they weren’t of the highest quality. At the Monday morning auction I attended in his warehouse east of San Marcos, a metal ice-cream parlor table and two chairs ($95), a puce wicker chest ($15), an oak wardrobe ($325), and a gateleg table with a pineapple-shaped pedestal ($155) sold faster than Beanie Babies. McClellan suggested the same items would go for twice the price at his Thursday night sales.

Ole Blanco Auction Company, 318 Fourth Street, Blanco, 830-833-2225; auctions the first Sunday and third Saturday of the month through December, the third Sunday of the month thereafter. If Hee Haw threw an auction, this would be it—a relaxed, hyper-country atmosphere perfect for auction novices. It was here, on a steamy Saturday evening, that I came to appreciate the melodious grace of a seasoned auctioneer’s patter. The banter of Ole Blanco’s young auctioneer amounted to repeating the bid over and over—thirty-five-dollar-thirty-five- dollar-thirty-five-dollar-thirty-five-dollar—until I wanted to seize one of the plow discs stacked beside me and fling it at him. The antics of the ring men, who prissed around with lampshades on their heads and tickled the audience with outrageous claims of various items’ worth, made up for the grating but earnest auctioneer. Actual antiques—iron wagon wheels ($35), a hand-hewn hay cart ($200), a weathered bench held together with square-headed nails ($125)—were trotted out along with pure crap. But there was no pretension here and plenty of fun. I went home with a jewelry box stuffed with glittering brooches and bracelets ($5) that I’m going to use to decorate Christmas presents.

Uncle Sam’s Club

FEDERAL GOVERNMENT AUCTIONS OFFER a wildly eclectic assortment of seized and surplus goods, from Ferraris to ostrich eggs, from a pallet of slide projectors to 1,200 pounds of cold-weather trousers. Sam’s little nieces and nephews—state and local governments, school districts, and universities—produce mountains of surplus stuff as well: school buses, gasoline generators, two-way radios, and enough confiscated bicycles to mobilize the entire city of Shanghai. These auctions, treasure troves of techno-junk, are haunted by buyers like Neil Chavigny, who has spent twenty years seeking out the bizarre and inexplicable: rocket-shaped “birds” that are dragged on cables behind ships exploring the ocean for oil; medical equipment (dental chairs, blood-cell centrifuges) that goes for fractions of pennies on the dollar; and microwave dishes sold as scrap metal (Chavigny cuts them in half and turns them upside down to make avant-garde awnings).

This recycler makes big bucks brokering what the rest of us can only scratch our heads over; what he doesn’t flip immediately he stuffs into his Austin store, Radio Ranch. If you’re only buying for yourself and are more interested in home furnishings than weird science, these auctions are still great places to find things like my wooden lab cabinet or glass-front stainless-steel cabinets on wheels or giant operating-room lights.

While surplus auctions are usually announced in the Sunday classifieds, most are more easily tracked by subscribing to the mailing lists of the auctioneers specializing in these sales. Austin’s Shattuck and Associates Auctioneers (512-482-0270; handles auctions for the University of Texas. Gaston and Sheehan Auctioneers in Pflugerville (512-251-2780; gastonsheehan) holds frequent auctions of goods seized by the IRS and United States marshals. Treasury Department auctions—where you might find eight thousand key chains for sale “for export only” alongside a 1974 Cessna—are handled by Maryland-based EG&G Dynatrend (Public Auction Line, 703-273-7373). Sales of items confiscated by Customs are held semi-regularly in El Paso and intermittently around the state. The Treasury Department also auctions off the high-dollar booty of convicted drug dealers on a random (but highly publicized) basis at various locations statewide.

You can also get in touch with the government entity directly. The military conducts its own auctions through its Defense Reutilization and Marketing Office (DRMO), mainly at the bases in Corpus Christi, Killeen, and San Antonio (210-925-7766 in San Antonio; for information and text-only catalogs).

The General Services Commission of Texas holds sealed-bid sales for a wide variety of state surplus property at its office in Austin (1711 San Jacinto, 512-463-3381 for information; 512-463-3416 to sign up for the bid list). Sealed-bid sales are not exclusive to the GSC, but nearly so. After obtaining a bid list, bidders can fax, mail, or hand deliver their bid to the GSC office up until the moment the bids are opened.

Don’t confuse this agency with the federal General Services Administration (auction hotline for the Southwest region—which includes Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arkansas, Texas, and Louisiana—800-495-1276; real estate operator 817-978-2331; This Fort Worth—based center unloads surplus items like vehicles, computers, and heavy equipment for almost every federal agency. The bidding at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation ( has slowed considerably since the frenzy of the late-eighties bust, when the agency unloaded hundreds of millions of dollars in financial instruments and real estate seized from failed savings and loans. But occasional foreclosed properties still hit the block, most recently an apartment complex in Pflugerville and undeveloped land in North Austin.

The government is more particular about payment than the auction houses. Some of these auctions will accept credit cards. Some will take personal checks with a driver’s license, others require a letter of credit from your bank, and some are strictly cash or cashier’s check (wonder what makes them so suspicious?). You will also have to schlepp your treasures home yourself. (At the University of Texas sales, for “insurance reasons,” workers are forbidden even to help you pick something up.)

Here’s a sampling of what to expect at government sales:

The Feds: I never would have gone to the Willie Nelson IRS auction at his Pedernales recording studio six years ago if I hadn’t been covering it for a paper I worked for. It was bleak and depressing; real vultures circled overhead in the gray skies that day. The IRS agents were brusque and the crowd was hostile, refusing to bid on anything. The crowd wasn’t so compassionate at the IRS auction I attended this summer at the Gaston and Sheehan auction house at 1420 FM 685 in Pflugerville. Living and breathing incarnations of the characters from King of the Hill vied for office furniture, tools, a mangy stuffed bear and leopard, and truckloads of model kits for ships, jeeps, and space shuttles. Prices were high, but there’s something to be said for the quality of items unwillingly forfeited, especially when compared with the condition of some equipment at surplus sales. The Dell computers ($400), Epson printers ($230), and Emerson microwave ($55) auctioned here might actually work. The “mahogany” workstations ($700) and credenzas ($425) fetched near-retail prices.

In August, a week before an auction of cars and boats seized from an Austin-area drug dealer, officers from every branch of law enforcement involved in the seizure—the IRS, Customs, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and the local police—held a press conference, carefully explaining to half a dozen reporters how the money from the sale of these assets would go back into federal and local crime-fighting efforts. At the actual sale, which took place in the ballroom of the Austin Marriott Hotel, all you needed to bid on a piece of drug-smuggling history was a photo I.D. and a cashier’s check for $10,000. Two hundred bidders scrounged up the money and, along with several hundred onlookers, sat gaping as collectors rapidly bid up a 1988 Ferrari Testarossa to $75,000, a 1967 Corvette Roadster to $59,000, and a 1988 Porsche 930 to $38,000. Bargain hunters left the ballroom grumbling, but the Feds were thrilled.

The Military: Kafka would feel right at home at the DRMO at East Kelly Air Force Base (500 Tayman Street, Building 3000) in San Antonio. The warehouse, a temple to bureaucratic consumption, is so huge the workers ride three-wheeled bikes from one end to the other, cataloguing hundreds of computers, tools, engines, machine parts, televisions, books, shoes, desks, and chairs. Even this quarter-mile-long storeroom can’t contain all the bid lots, some of which are housed in a dozen outbuildings nearby. The bidding process is tedious. Everyone crowds into a room isolated from the sale items. Bidders cram themselves into school desks and bury their noses in their catalogs, which list three-hundred-plus lots. Talk too much or too loudly and you’ll be scolded. Behave yourself and you can take home 44 ball bearings ($175), a bunch of jet engine components ($750), obsolete diving equipment ($40), or 450 pounds of telephones ($100). Look for these sales to be held about twice a month.

The General Services Commission: At a GSC auction in Austin, Neil Chavigny and I awaited the opening of the sealed bids for, among other things, an RC30, a huge camera used in aerial photogrammetry. Chavigny and his partner were bidding against a select handful of serious contenders. The lowest bid was $11, a figure that made those in the know snort with a mixture of humor and disgust. The winning bid was $298,000. Chavigny’s bid was $252,000. He was disappointed but immediately began scheming to acquire some other obscure and enormous instrument.

More typical GSC merchandise includes telephones and mobile radios, computers, used cars and trucks, and more office chairs than there are behinds in Texas to fill them. After the auction, I read through the lists and lists of items auctioned in the past few months and discovered that someone had bought a 1991 Ford Aerostar minivan for $2,662 and another lucky devil had scored eleven pallets of computer floor tiles for $31.86. Or how about a 1982 Dodge pickup for $300 or a dozen Kodak slide-projector trays for $10?

The University of Texas at Austin: The UT auctions held three times a year at the J. J. Pickle Research Campus (10100 Burnet Road, Building 45, Austin) are my favorites (even though, as a Texas ex and a taxpayer, I have the nagging feeling I’ve paid for this stuff once before). The flotsam that collects here is so weird, it’s irresistible to my inner pack rat. People-watching is an added bonus: The crowd matches the eccentric merchandise. Wiry little guys scramble around on the heaps of scrap metal like mountaineers looking for gold. Pale, twitchy types with pocket protectors study dials and gauges and odd electronics for hours. Professorial men with gray goatees compete for 16mm moviolas ($65) and tripod attachments for giant cameras ($600). When I was there this summer, thirteen IBM color printers went for a buck apiece and a 1982 Chevette sold for $375. Two old desk fans fetched $35. And I lugged home an obsolete oscilloscope for only $5 (there’s at least $10 worth of knobs on the thing, and its screen still emits a ghostly green glow). The condition of merchandise here ranges from perfect to irreparable, so pre-purchase inspection is essential.

Local bureaucracies: At first glance, the auction of county, city, and school district surplus held this summer at the Kendall County Fairgrounds seemed too sparse to be eventful, but there were riches here for next to nothing: an Onan generator ($200), a powerful fan ($17.50), a right-angle grinder ($25), a school bus ($625), and a herd of bicycles ($5 to $60). I couldn’t resist dozens of tin ballot buckets in various sizes ($1 to $5) with the county precincts carefully hand-painted on the sides in thick black letters; I’ve since filled them with birdseed, cat litter, and plumbing parts. (I even met the man who had done the lettering back in the sixties.) If this auction were a swimming hole, it’d be the one I’d keep to myself.

Specialty Sales

ONCE YOU BECOME AN AUCTION AFICIONADO, you’ll sniff out the obscure specialty auctions—sales of African tribal art, say, or farm equipment or Hummel figurines—like a truffle-hunting pig. There are also country “estate” sales where boxes of mateless Tupperware lids are sold alongside well-worn La-Z-Boys, plastic flower arrangements, and—surprise!—a carved Empire chair or a huge collection of souvenir spoons. And restaurant-liquidation auctions are where you might snag custom light fixtures, a commercial range, or a carton half full of napkins or matchbooks.

The Internet is rife with auctions, but I’ve had little luck at any of them. When I was finally able to access the Web site of a celebrity auction, where movie stars’ donations are auctioned to raise money for charity, it had been canceled “due to technical problems.” I managed to hit the site of an online electronics and computer auction on my first try but got no response as I clicked around trying to find out how to bid; so I signed up for its online mailing list. Its e-mailed announcements come as regularly as allergies but still give no information on how to bid.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that I jinxed my success on the Net subconsciously. Computer auctions, like most interactions in cyberspace, are too far removed from the gritty experience. Ninety percent of the fun of an auction lies in being in the arena, snorting dust, eating candy bars for breakfast, watching greed and envy at work as, palms sweating and heart racing, you raise the bid, competing for the prize.

Learn the Lingo

You may not be able to understand what the silver-tongued auctioneer is chanting, but you’d better know what he means by:

Buyer’s Premium
A percentage added to the purchase price by the auction company. The amount, which can vary from nothing to 10 percent, should be posted on a sign by the cash register, announced before the sale starts, and printed on your bid card. If you buy something for $300, be prepared to fork over as much as $30 (plus sales tax) before you can take it home.

A unit of sale that can range in number from one to thousands. Typically, a lot cannot be broken up. Auctioneers will occasionally announce that a group of similar lots will be “sold for choice.” Say there are a hundred Madame Alexander dolls, each listed as a separate lot. All of the dolls are auctioned at once, the highest bid determining the price per doll. The winning bidder can choose as many dolls as he wants. Any dolls that remain are offered to the second-highest bidder at the hammer price, and so on. What’s left usually goes back on the block.

How low can you go? No lower than the reserve, the minimum price an item can sell for, usually set by the auction house or seller. Often there is no reserve, but if there is, sometimes it is disclosed before bidding begins, and sometimes it’s the auctioneer’s secret.

X Times the Money
Those six lyre-back chairs are going for only $60? Maybe not. If the auctioneer started the bidding by saying, “We’re selling these six times the money,” the buyer will be shelling out $360 to claim half a dozen chairs.

Mind Your Own Bidness

• When you know what you want and have inspected it thoroughly (Will it fit? Is it damaged?), strengthen your resolve not to get carried away by making a written note of your limit before the bidding begins and passion swells your head but not your pocketbook.

• The auctioneer might open the bidding for, say, an antique armoire by asking, “Do I hear $100?” If you want to bid that amount, raise your bid card high enough to catch the attention of the auctioneer or one of his ring men, who help him spot bidders in a crowded room.

• When the auctioneer sees you, he’ll say something like, “I’ve got $100. Do I hear $200?” someone else raises his card and is in the bidding. “I’ve got $200; do I hear $300?” asks the auctioneer, looking at you. If you now want to cut the bid jump in half, meet his gaze and, with your hand palm-down, make a quick slicing motion through the air, thereby locking in your counterbid at $250. But don’t do this too often; it can make the auctioneer cranky and destroys the rhythm.

• Don’t continually hold your bid number up like you’re the Statue of Liberty; it’ll mark you as an overeager novice with deep pockets. (On the other hand, San Antonio auctioneer Gene Vogt notes that such evident fervor can sometimes intimidate other bidders into giving up.) Once you’re in the bidding, you can often raise your bid with a nod of your head.

• Gently shake your head no—looking as bored as possible—when you’re out.