Thursday, 27 July 2006

Antiques for sale: but how do you get the best prices?

by Christopher Proudlove©
There's a sudden death in the family and whilst it is inevitable, it's still devastating. But there are practicalities to deal with, most importantly security issues surrounding a house full of possessions now standing empty. Thankfully, there was a will, and special things have been bequeathed to relatives for whom they have a special meaning.

Executors face the task of dealing with the remainder of the contents and the house must be put on the market. It's a well-kept home, and in a rising market, a buyer soon comes forward. It all starts to move frighteningly quickly. The buyer wants to complete quickly but the house is still full of a lifetime's accumulation of furniture, furnishings, knickknacks and general detritus that no one really wants.

So what to do? In the end, and with the completion date looming, the family decision is to send the lot to the local auction house and let it take its chance.

And then there's the other scenario. After years of collecting, you decide that in order to carry on, some of it simply must be sold. In the event, it proves hard enough just deciding what you're prepared to part with, but go it must. Problem is, it's all highly specialised and not everyone's cup of tea. And anyway, why should you pay auctioneers' commission when you're perfectly capable of taking it to a car boot sale and selling it yourself? You've bought enough that way, so why not try your hand at selling?

We speak from personal experience of both situations and we made mistakes -- all of them costly -- each time. This week's column is prompted by the experiences of a [North Wales] reader who was also left counting the cost of making the wrong decision about how to deal with the sale of unwanted property.

When we chose to take the remaining contents of our relative's home to the local saleroom, we felt we had no option. He was a great fan of Models of Yesteryear miniature cars, which were still in their original boxes; Franklin Mint limited edition "collectables"; Bradford Exchange plates and other such knickknacks that were relatively expensive when they were purchased but worth very little second-hand.

Auction checklist:
*Be informed - read and understand the conditions of business
*Be prepared - get a valuation first
*Be sensible - listen to the auctioneer's advice
*Be realistic - set achievable reserve prices
*Be thrilled - there is no upper limit to prices auctions can achieve

Of course, we could have boxed it all up along with all the domestic chattels we found and taken it to a weekend car boot sale, where we might have been able to sell it for at least reasonable prices. But where was it all going to go? Our own house is already stuffed with junk and anyway, it was winter, and the car boot sale season was months away. Perhaps we should have stalled on completing the house sale but that could have cost us a buyer.

No, we had no choice. It had to go to the saleroom. Yes, we knew we would be lucky if it sold for anything like reasonable amounts. We also thought we knew the saleroom. We had been buyers there years before and thought we knew the system. But things change. What we didn't realise, until we got the settlement cheque, was that the saleroom now levies a minimum lot charge, plus something euphemistically called a "lotting charge".

The former seems fair enough in these days of high labour costs and other spiralling overheads. The idea is that if you charge the seller a set fee per lot -- it can vary between say £5 for chattels and £25 for cars -- designed to discourage people consigning low value items for sale. Some salerooms levy the charge regardless of the selling price and charge nothing further, while others shift the charge to a percentage of the selling price should the minimum sum be exceeded. Commission charges can range from as low as 5% to as high as 20%. And don't forget the 17.5% VAT, which is payable on the commission.

The lotting charge -- made by the saleroom for simply going through the property, deciding on what should be sold with what, sticking lot numbers on it and describing it in the catalogue -- seems particularly harsh. In our own case, we had got hold of some cardboard boxes and put into each of them the stuff we thought should make up each lot, so in effect, the work was done. The auctioneer didn't see it like that and charged us for having his porters do it again (it was not a catalogued sale).

Needless to say, the final settlement cheque was a fraction of what we were expecting and in an already somewhat emotional state about the entire experience, it was all very annoying.

Our car boot sale blunder was much simpler to explain. Decades ago we somehow acquired a cardboard shop advertising sign for Scotch whisky. It was probably Edwardian and was decorated appropriately enough with a rather imposing chappy in full Highland kit standing in front of a castle.

We sold it, from memory, for £15 and thought we'd done rather well since we knew that such things had become collectable. Imagine our dismay then when by chance we saw it (or at least its identical twin) had sold in a specialist auction for £250. The dealer had recognised it for what it was, a rare depiction of Bonnie Prince Charlie used in advertising, standing with his father's standard having raised an army to successfully march on the city of Edinburgh. Embarrassed at my error of judgement, this is a story I share only with my close friends.

The reader who wrote to me had had a similarly rough time of it. An avid "Flog It! watcher and a collector for 30 years, she thought she would have a clear-out. With some hefty household bills on the horizon, she needed to raise some money and thought the saleroom route was her best solution.

She contacted the auctioneer who duly sent her an entry form which included the saleroom's conditions of business. It wasn't easy for her to reach the decision to part with things to which she had become emotionally attached over the years but needs must. With some help from a heavy box-lifter she piled around 200 objects into the back of her campervan and set out on the lengthy journey to the sale.
Car boot checklist:
*Be informed - know the value of the stuff you're selling
*Be prepared - label everything with prices beforehand
*Be sensible - bargain-hunters expect to haggle prices down
*Be realistic - you won't sell everything first time out
*Be thrilled - you got hard cash for the stuff the auction house turned away
She had taken the precaution of listing everything for sale and had selected five things of particular importance to her on which she placed reserves -- prices that she had decided they would not be sold for less. Her arrival at the saleroom was not what she had anticipated. She saw a general valuer who made it clear that her treasures were not as valuable -- or as saleable -- as she had hoped.

If the collection had to be sold, the recommendation was that everything should be offered without reserve and in sizeable job lots lumping together disparate objects, none of which the auctioneer really wanted in his sale in the first place. The result was disappointingly poor from a financial point of view and both distressing and upsetting. Instead of the couple of hundred pounds she anticipated, her goods sold for a total of £24, from which £15 was deducted in auctioneer's commission, leaving her with a cheque for just £9.

So, what went wrong? And was the auctioneer negligent?

In simple terms the saleroom was not the place to sell. Quite clearly the stuff would have fetched better prices at a car boot sale. And no, the auctioneer was not guilty. He did everything by the book and obtained the best prices he could on the day. Could the upset to his client have been avoided? Possibly.

Had she read and understood the conditions of business, she might have known the saleroom levied a £5 charge on each lot it sells. Had she realised the significance of selling without reserve, she might still have had the option to take her possessions to the car boot sale. Signing up to the idea of selling without the protection of a fixed reserve price meant that any final bid, however low it might be, would be sufficient for the auctioneer to sell the lot. She would be the only loser.

Most salerooms around the country run weekly valuation days at which members of the public can take collections of objects for a free valuation which is given without obligation on either side. My advice is to take advantage of that service, then you'll be in a better position to make an informed judgment: auction excitement or car boot sale challenge.

Send stuff to the auction and my advice is never leave anything for sale without agreeing a fixed reserve with the auctioneer. If he sells it for less, he'll be obliged to pay you the difference.

WriteAntiques is happy to provide readers with free, impartial advice on how best to sell antiques and works of art. Email WriteAntiques "at"

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