How to Buy Antique Furniture at Auction: A Guide for Beginners


I love to buy antique furniture at auction.

In fact, l am an auction junkie. Love them. Always have and always will.

I have participated in antique and collectible auctions for the better part of 30 years, and I have some pretty amazing pieces to show for it.

Live auctions are exciting and fun, with great deals to be had on all kinds of antique furnishings.

If you think you’d like to deal in antique furniture, attending auctions is a great way to get started and possibly make some money.

In the early days, before all the online auctions available today, you had to attend an auction in person.

But before you bid on antique furniture at auction, there are some important things to consider.

So let’s dive in and learn what auctions are all about.

Table of Contents:

Understand the Auction Process

Auctions can be an excellent source for locating singular, exclusive, one-of-a-kind vintage and antique furnishings.

Attending an antique furniture auction requires familiarizing yourself with the process and knowing what to anticipate.

Auctions are competitive bidding events where buyers compete against each other for items they want.

The highest bidder wins the item and pays the bid price at the auction’s end.

In advance of any auction, live or online, it is vital that you research the auction house to ensure they are reputable.

Sometimes what appears to be a legitimate auction house is far from it.

Take J. Levine Auction & Appraisal in Scottsdale, Arizona, for example. For years, Josh Levine conducted antique auctions. He was well known in the antiques, appraisal and auction industry. I attended a few of his auctions myself.

In late 2022, Josh Levine was indicted on nearly two dozen felony counts, for trafficking in stolen goods, theft, and fraudulent schemes.

After you are sure you are dealing with a reputable auction house, be sure to research the item you are interested in and know its fair market value. Set a budget and stick to it.

Getting caught up in all the drama an auction entails is easy. Auction companies work to get you excited and feeling competitive. Auctioneers make their money by getting the highest hammer price for each item that comes up for bid. The higher the bid, the more commission the auction house makes.

Live auctions take place in person with bidders physically present, while online auctions allow people worldwide to participate without traveling anywhere. A seat in a comfortable chair and a computer is all that is needed these days.

Keeping a level head is critical, or you risk spending more than you wanted or bidding more than the item is worth.

Live bidding in person is much different than participating in an online auction (even if the online auction is live). You can’t really know what’s going on. You won’t see the auctioneer, the bid spotter, or the “ringmen” who are the auctioneer’s assistants working the floor.

There are some tricks to bidding in person at a live auction.

For example, I always stand behind the bidding crowd so I can see what is going on at all angles. I am able to see who I am competing against from this position.

I am never first to bid on an item. I will sit back and wait until just before the hammer drops before placing my bid.

The only downside to this approach is that if you don’t act quickly enough, you may lose out as the hammer comes down on the last bid, just before you intended to signal your bid. You have to be quick.

There are subleties to look for with the auctioneers and their ringmen, if there are ringmen. Most high-end auctions will have at least one ringman.

At most auctions you have only bid spotters who will point and yell out, “yep”, when a new bid is placed by someone in the crowd.

Ringmen, on the otherhand, are experts at what they do and they can squeeze a nickle out of a goat’s fanny if need be.

The ringmen are there to work the ring for the auctioneer, so beware. The can read a room like no other. They are friendly, funny, engaging, and they want to help you spend every dime you came with.


Before the auction, be sure to review all applicable regulations and rules to avoid any surprises. Pay particular attention to the premium added to the auction price, usually between 10% and 30%, added to the final hammer price. This can drive up an item’s cost, so be aware of going in.

If the hammer comes down on your bid. You have won the item. In a live auction, you will show your bidder number to the auctioneer, and the auction house will record that you are the winning bidder.

When the auction ends, or you are finished bidding on the items you want, it’s time to immediately pay the auction house cashier. Generally, it’s cash or credit card, depending on the bid amount.

Be prepared with enough funds before attending, as most places don’t accept personal checks or IOUs.

Auction houses frown heavily on those that don’t follow through with payment. Consignors are waiting for payment and so is the auction house.

You could be penalized by not being invited back to buy again. And, in other cases where the auction hammer price is hefty, you could be on the hook for additional costs associated with non-payment.

Finally, once payment is received by the seller, then ownership transfers from them directly into your hands.

Congratulations, you now own something unique that will likely become part of your family history someday. Enjoy.

Auctions can be intricate, so devoting some effort to learning the particulars of this system is essential before taking part.

Key Takeaway: At an auction, buyers can compete against each other to win unique pieces of antique furniture. Research the item beforehand and be prepared with enough funds so that you don’t get caught out when it comes time for bidding – then make payment immediately once the item is won to become its proud new owner.

Research Antique Furniture

Exploring antique furniture can be intimidating, yet vital for obtaining the most advantageous price.

Before bidding, taking the necessary steps to ensure you understand what you are purchasing is essential. If you don’t, you may get a learn burn. And that isn’t any fun at all.

Start by researching the type of furniture and its age. To ascertain the worth of a piece, its type and year of production must be determined first.

Look up information online or talk to experts at local antique stores or auctions for more detailed knowledge about the piece and any potential issues that may come with it.

Next, inspect the condition of the piece closely before placing a bid. This step is crucial since even minor flaws can significantly decrease the value.

The Herter Brothers chair (pictured below) is obviously in rough shape and could use some repair. This would be a great buy at auction, considering the Herter Brothers were famous and provided services to prominent clients and furnished the Red Room of the White House.

antique-chairHerter Brothers Chair 

Finally, research recent sales prices to get an idea of how much similar pieces have sold for recently at auction houses.

By researching sales prices of similar items, you can gain an edge when deciding how much to bid by ensuring that you don’t overpay for something.

Exploring vintage furniture can be a fantastic way to source one-of-a-kind items that will bring life and allure to any home or office.

Something that I like to do is look for structurally sound antique pieces that need refurbishing, paint or some minor fixes. These pieces can often be bought for less because others simply don’t want to put the work in to restore them.

Breathing life back into an old piece of furniture is rewarding either for use in your own space, or sell to someone else who might appreciate it.

Examining the furniture before buying can guarantee you obtain an original, quality product for a reasonable cost.

Next, we’ll discuss how to inspect antique furniture for signs of wear or damage.

Inspect Antique Furniture

When it comes to antique furniture, inspection is critical. Look for:

  • signs of wear and tear such as scratches, dents, or chips in the wood;
  • cracks in the joints;
  • loose screws or bolts;
  • discoloration from age or sun damage;
  • broken parts that need repair; and other imperfections.

Examine the antique furniture closely for any signs of:

  • deterioration, such as abrasions, indentations, or splinters in the timber;
  • cracks at connecting points;
  • loose screws and bolts;
  • discoloration due to age or sun exposure;
  • broken parts that need repair work and other blemishes, which could affect its value.

It’s also essential to check for structural integrity:

  • make sure all drawers open and close smoothly and securely,
  • legs are firmly attached,
  • and chairs don’t wobble when you sit on them.

If upholstered pieces like sofas or armchairs are involved, check the fabric for tears or stains. And if possible, test out any electrical components (like lamps) before bidding.

Don’t be fooled. If an item looks perfect, it doesn’t necessarily mean there aren’t  flaws beneath the surface. But again, I look at the less than perfect pieces as opportunity to make some money.

Before buying damaged or rough pieces for repair or other work such as paint and upholstery, be sure that you are confident you can tackle the job so it doesn’t end up taking up space in your garage. You never want to regret your purchase.

My husband and I have a standing joke.

The first auction I ever attended eons ago, I bid on an antique wing chair all the way up to $100 and won it.

I was thrilled only to learn later that the chair was completely falling apart. Yup! It was a total loss. I failed to inspect the chair to make sure it was structurally sound. That $100 was a lot of money to spend back then, not to mention a huge hit to my pride.

So now, whenever we see an antique chair at auction and I show any interest at all, my husband reminds me of that $100 chair I bought oh so many years ago. We have a good laugh about it, but it’s still a bit of a thorn in my side to this very day.

I’ve learned a lot since then and I never made that mistake again. Learn burns! That’s what I call them.

Use discernment and jot down details of all the items you want to bid on. Keeping a list of the items you win as well as the hammer price is also important for when you are at the cashier’s desk making payment. If there are any discrepancies, you will have a record.

Examining vintage furniture is essential to guarantee you acquire the finest quality pieces for your expenditure.

Set a Budget

Keeping your spending in check is essential, no matter how excited you get about a particular piece.

Before you even start looking at items up for auction, decide on an amount you are comfortable with and won’t exceed, no matter what happens during the bidding process. This will help ensure you don’t overspend and regret your purchase later.

Determine what type of item or items you want to buy and then research the average price range for similar pieces online or from other sources such as appraisers or antique dealers.

Next, consider any additional costs associated with purchasing an antique such as shipping fees (if applicable) and taxes; factor these into your budget so there are no surprises when the time comes to make payment.

1876 Auction at Clinton Hall, New York, once located at 13 Astor Place, NY.

It’s also wise to leave room in your budget for unexpected expenses related to repairs or restoration should they become necessary down the road – this could include anything from reupholstering furniture fabric to refinishing wood surfaces.

Consider if it is worth investing more initially to save funds later.

Sometimes investing more upfront can mean lower maintenance costs further down the line – just do some research beforehand so that whatever decision you make is informed by facts rather than impulse buying.

Following these steps, keeping track of all associated costs, and setting a reasonable yet practical budget before entering into any auction should help ensure success without breaking the bank.

Making bids shrewdly can aid in keeping your financial plan and still offer you a chance to acquire the pieces you desire.

Key Takeaway: Before attending an antique furniture auction, setting a realistic budget for additional costs such as shipping and taxes is important. Before making a purchase, ensure you have done your research to avoid overspending or impulsive buying; it may be beneficial to invest more upfront to save on future maintenance.

Place Your Bids

When placing bids on antique furniture, it’s important to remember that you are competing with other bidders. Aim for the best bargain while sticking to your spending plan.

To do this, start by researching antique furniture and inspecting pieces before the auction begins.

Live auctions usually reserve a day and time you can visit the auction house to inspect the items you are interested in bidding on. This is a practice I adhere to if I am bidding at a live auction that I am physically attending.

I often travel to auction locations out of state as well. I always go and preview the auction items I’m interested in purchasing. Do not miss this opportunity. It’s impossible to do with online auctions. However, most reputable online auction companies are good at describing any damage, cracks, chips, or other anomalies.

If you receive an online auction item that is not “as described,” you will need to contact the auction house regarding returning the item for a refund. Sometimes this is not possible. It will depend on the auction house’s rules and procedures. Read and understand them before bidding because you will be bound by them.

Checking out antiques beforehand can help you choose the ideal item and set a price you are willing to spend.

Antique sofa from the Jedediah Wilcox mansion (Meriden, CT) that was auctioned off when he was financially ruined, circa 1870.

Once the bidding starts, stay focused and don’t get carried away in a bidding war with another bidder. Keep track of bids from others to have an idea of where prices may go before making any offers.

If you find an item that appeals to you but is beyond your budget, set your absolute maximum bid limit to avoid exceeding it.

If two or more people make similar bids simultaneously, they will enter into a “bidding war,” which can drive up prices quickly if both parties continue bidding against each other until one drops out or runs out of money.

This can be an exciting time and what makes auctions so popular. People in the audience will often applaud the winning bid of a competitive auction on a highly desirable item.

While bidding wars are fun to watch, you should avoid this situation unless it is an item that you absolutely know you want.

Remember that costs add up, shipping, delivery, and taxes, plus the bid price.

These extra costs can often turn what seemed like great deals into expensive mistakes if left unaccounted for.

So make sure all factors related to the purchase are considered. Otherwise, something might look like a steal but cost way more than expected after everything’s said and done.

Key Takeaway: Before committing to a purchase, be well-informed about the item and consider all associated costs, such as taxes and delivery fees. Be mindful of getting into a ‘bidding war’ with another bidder, as this could drive up prices quickly.

FAQs in Relation to How to Buy Antique Furniture at Auction

What to look for when buying antique furniture?

When obtaining antique furnishings, it is essential to evaluate the age and state of the item.

Evaluate any repairs that have been done to the furniture and make sure they were performed correctly.

Examine all surfaces, including legs, arms, backrests, etc., looking for chips or cracks in the wood. Ensure all drawers open and close properly with no sticking or squeaking sounds when opened/closed. Lastly, research fair market prices, so you know what to expect when making an offer on a piece of antique furniture.

How does an antique auction work?

An antiquities sale, where the highest bidder obtains a range of vintage items and collectibles, is held at an auction house.

It typically takes place in an auction house, with bidders registering before the event.

The auctioneer will then call out items for bidding, starting at a predetermined price or “reserve” set by the seller.

Bidders can raise their hand or bid verbally until one bidder remains the winner of that item; payment is usually due immediately following the completion of all bids on an item.

Auctioneers may also use other methods, such as sealed bids or online auctions.

How do furniture auctions work?

At furniture auctions, buyers can purchase quality pieces at reduced prices by participating in a bidding process.

They typically involve bidding on items from various sellers in an auction-style setting, with the highest bidder winning the item.

Beforehand, buyers can inspect and evaluate each piece of furniture to determine its condition and value before placing bids.

The seller will then set a minimum price for which they’re willing to sell their item; if no one bids higher than that, it is sold for that price.

After all, pieces have been bid on; payment must be made by cash or check before any goods can be taken home.

How to shop at an auction?

Do your homework.

Research the item you’re interested in and be sure of its value. Next, register for the auction by providing your name and contact information.

Be mindful of your spending limits while bidding, as getting swept up in the enthusiasm of competing with other bidders can be tempting.

Once you win an item, ensure all paperwork is completed correctly before leaving the premises. Following these steps will help ensure a successful shopping experience.


When buying antique furniture at auction, there are many things to consider.

From understanding the process, researching what you’re looking for, inspecting each piece of furniture before bidding on it, and setting a budget that best suits your needs.

Taking these steps will ensure an enjoyable experience when purchasing antiques from auctions. With some patience and research, you can find the perfect pieces of antique furniture while staying within your desired budget.

Have you been to a furniture auction? What was your experience? What did you buy?

About the author

Hi, I'm Teri Franks, the voice behind Prescott Voice. I've spent years immersing myself in all that Prescott has to offer, and I love sharing the unique stories and experiences I've discovered. When I'm not writing, you'll find me exploring Prescott's trails or tasting our local cuisine. I believe that the vibrant lifestyle here in Prescott inspires us to live a healthier, happier life. Come join me on this exciting journey as we explore Prescott together.

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