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Lifestyles

Pittsburgh native guides readers through auction process

| Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2002

Forget the West Nile virus. Antiques expert and New York City-based author Dana Micucci can share chilling tales of a much more highly contagious ailment — auction fever.

"I've seen auction fever many times," says Micucci, a Pittsburgh native and North Allegheny High School graduate. "People can get so carried away with their bidding. There's a real adrenaline rush of competing against others. When two bidders want the same thing, it can turn in a battle of egos and deep pockets."

In 1990, Micucci witnessed a historic bout of the fever involving Vincent van Gogh's "Portrait of Dr. Gachet," which sold at auction to a Japanese businessman for a record $82.5 million.

"At the time, I was working at Christie's," she says. "I was in the press office during the sale, but I could hear the action on the intercom. There was an incredible explosion of applause as the price continued to rise, millions upon millions. It was like a boxing match.

"Obviously, the buyer had the money to spend. But many people don't stop when they should."

A no-surrender policy might be laudable in the ring, but knowing when to say no mas is a bidder's best defense at an auction. In her new book, "Best Bids: An Insider's Guide to Buying at Auction" (Viking Studio, $32.95), Micucci shares advice on how bidders can protect themselves from the fever — and the equally common day-after hangover of "buyer's remorse." "Best Bids" includes "how to buy" chapters on everything from American folk art and rare first-edition books to European furniture and Oriental rugs.

"The bidding process isn't as complex as it seems," she says. "There are just a few simple steps. And the most important is to research the type of object you'd like to buy, whether it's a Federal sideboard, a Charles Eames chair or a Chippendale tea table. Talk to antiques dealers. Visit museums. Read the guidebooks. Research is your best defense."

Armed with a wealth of information, potential buyers should carefully examine their intended purchases at the auction preview, usually held a day or two before the sale.

"Most goods at auction are sold as-is," Micucci warns, "so the buyer should inspect items from every angle to check for condition and look for damage or repairs." She also recommends asking the auctioneer questions about an item's authenticity and provenance, or the history of ownership, to ensure that it is the real deal.

Equally important, auction-goers should set spending limits.

"Don't let your emotions run away with your wallet," Micucci says. "Determine how much you want to spend, with a little room for an extra bid if you really want something. And you have to remember that any other costs, such as buyer's and seller's premiums, sales tax and shipping, can add up to 25 percent more to the total price."

Despite a recent price-fixing scandal, major galleries such as Christie's and Sotheby's tout long-established reputations for running legitimate sales. As an unregulated industry, however, the door is open to many less-than-trustworthy operators.

"It certainly is a buyer-beware situation" in terms of choosing an auction house, Micucci says. "If you're not sure, ask local dealers and collectors where they go. Word-of-mouth recommendations from other auction-goers are helpful, too. And I would definitely attend several auctions before placing a bid, to see if you're comfortable with the auctioneer's style" and quality of the goods for sale.

With the widespread appeal of eBay and public television's "Antiques Roadshow," Micucci says she expects the popularity of auctions to grow — and that's good news for buyers.

"People are more savvy about antiques and collectibles these days," she says. "No one is willing to throw away a family heirloom or something they found in the attic, because they could be worth quite a bit of money."

And that means more antiques, collectibles and everyday household items than ever are heading to auction. Along with offering buyers a huge selection of goods ranging from pre-Columbian art to modern kitchen appliances under one roof, auctions are truly a buyer's market.

"Because buyers are setting the price," Micucci says, "there is a true fair-market value on items sold at auction.

"Granted, the final price is set by how high someone is willing to go. But at almost every auction, there is something for everyone at the right price."

Bidding rights


Here's how you can avoid bidding pitfalls at auction:

  • Get smart: Learn how to tell the difference between the real thing and a bum deal. Talk to dealers, go to museums and study the guidebooks to raise your bidding IQ.

  • Set limits: Determine how deep your pockets really are. If you can't honestly afford that Heriz rug at $3,000, then stop bidding before buyer's remorse sets in.

  • Stay calm: Be cool, even in the heat of a bidding frenzy. Don't let the auctioneer or other bidders throw you off your game plan.

  • Show thyself: Make sure the auctioneer can see and hear you. Your bid is worthless if it goes unnoticed.

  • Talk the talk: Study auction lingo. Understanding the vocabulary can increase your enjoyment and help you place your best bid.

    Source: "Best Bids: An Insider's Guide to Buying at Auction" (Viking Studio, $32.95).

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