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What I Learned About the Wealthy While Working at an Auction House

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Working at an auction house can give us insights on the wealthy and what they buy.

Before I was a full time blogger, I went to graduate school to study history and planned on a life working in museums. (Fun fact: John also studied history in school, and he and I are both Civil War nerds.)

As part of my education, I learned quite a bit about antiques and material culture. I was able to intern at a very large auction house in Richmond, Virginia where my duties ranged from simply moving objects around the warehouse to cataloging them and researching them.

I loved being around so many unique items, but the really interesting part came at the actual antique auctions.

The Wealthy at Antique Auctions

 

If you’ve never been to an antique auction before, it’s actually rather exciting. There are people bidding out loud, people calling in bids on the phone, and in general there are a ton of collectors who want to get their hands on some rare piece of china. It was quite amazing to watch.

While I worked there, we auctioned off huge chandeliers that used to be in the Virginia State Capitol, which had recently been remodeled. The warehouse was full of these absolutely enormous chandeliers, and people bought them like hot potatoes. Most of them went for $20,000-$50,000 each. I watched one very normal looking guy buy two of them back to back.

Lessons Learned

 

– You never know what will pique people’s interest. One small silver tray could fetch more than an entire car.

– It’s hard to tell who is wealthy (or at least ready to buy) at an auction. Sometimes they come to quietly bid on one thing while other times, they take the whole lot, one item after another.

– The extremely wealthy often have people calling in bids for them. So, they might instruct their assistants to bid up to a certain amount on their behalf, and their assistants are left in the awkward position of trying to decide whether to go higher or stay put in a bidding war over something their bosses really want.

It’s a Volatile Business

 

Ultimately, the antiques auction business was a really interesting one to learn about. Sometimes, they made a fortune at auctions, but sometimes, their customers were upset because they didn’t make anything close to what they wanted at all. This can be hard when someone is struggling financially so they sell their grandmother’s jewelry at auction, only to not profit much from it at all (after the auction house takes their cut.)

After my internship, as exciting as it was, I decided that I’d rather work in the archives in a museum with the objects, researching them and taking care of them, rather than researching them to get the best price for sale to the public.

Insights about the wealthy learned from working at an auction house.

I felt like many of the precious items I saw there, especially letters, went to random collectors in the public instead of institutions, which means there is a greater chance for them to be lost, damaged, or destroyed before new generations get to enjoy them. (Of course, as many of you know, I never went back to working at the archives at all. Instead, I enjoy working from home in the archives of my living room in my yoga pants writing posts like this one to you!) 🙂

Overall, it was pretty interesting to see so many wealthy people in one room, spending tens of thousands of dollars on everyday objects like it was absolutely nothing. If you don’t have a lot of cash to burn, I would still recommend going to see an auction, as it’s quite a spectacle if it’s good. Of course, you never know when you’ll be able to buy a little something too. I was able to get four chairs of my own from that Virginia State Capital auction that amazingly no one else wanted!

 

 

Have you ever been to an antiques auction? What have you learned about wealthy people by watching them in various situations or settings? Would you ever sell your family heirlooms at auction?

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Catherine Alford is a professional public speaker and freelance writer who covers family, finance, and freedom. Check out her blog, BudgetBlonde, and her bio at CatherineAlford.com.

18 Comments

  • I’ve never been to an auction before but the whole concept fascinates me. I do tend to agree with you though that it seems many of these things would be better off in a museum so everyone could enjoy and learn from them. But, the idea of owning a piece of history is alluring–I can see why people bid!

  • I have never been to an antique auction before BUT I saw some stories that are featured in the news. The antique items are totally expensive, I remember before when I was young, I even asked my father who would have bought an old item with a very crazy price? Well, now I know the reasons why. 🙂

  • Hubby’s school recently had a former grad donate a few works of art from his personal collection to benefit the school. The art was auctioning at Christie’s (I think) and raised close to $30MM for the school. It blows my mind that someone invested in art like that and that someone else purchased it for that price (it was purchased by another individual). It really is crazy how much money is out there and what people do with it.

  • Kayla says:

    Just the concept of the auction is interesting and becoming a lost way of selling in many ways. It’s cool that you got to experience that from that viewpoint! I remember when I was a little girl attending an estate auction with my mom (not for the wealthy), it was an interesting way to get fair price for a lot of really unique stuff.

  • I’ve been to plenty of auctions before, but not high value antiques. But from just everyday experiences, it is hard to tell who is wealthy and who isn’t (especially in NYC). The guy driving the Lambo could have $10 in his bank account, and the 75 year old couple using coupons at the grocery store could have a walk-up on Central Park West.

    I would only sell passed down antiques if they help no sentimental value to my family.

  • Money Beagle says:

    When you talked about the assistants actually doing the bidding, it reminded me of the Seinfeld episode where Elaine had to bid on JFK’s golf clubs for her boss Mr. Pitt, and got into a bidding war with an old frien-emy of hers. Nice to know that actually rings true 🙂

  • Interesting 🙂 I’ve only seen the auction action scenes where people fight for stuff in movies.

  • I’ve seen a few auctions on TV and I think the car ones are pretty interesting. Sometimes I think wealthy people get too bored. I mean, really, you need 20 cars? On one auction I saw a very wealthy person was auctioning off their entire collection one car at a time. He had like 200-500 cars (can’t remember which “hundreds” it was). I go back and forth on collecting and whatnot. It can be fun, but honestly it can become an obsession and a money pit. Then again, I’m not big on cars so maybe I just don’t “understand” 😉

  • MiningFrugal says:

    I love auctions for a couple reasons. First, you never know what you’ll find. Second, if you’re the seller, you don’t have to haggle. I sold a car on eBay over the last weekend for exactly that reason.

  • Sarah says:

    The closest I’ve ever come to an auction is watching one on on (fictional) TV shows. It sounds entertaining though. I wonder how many things end up back at auction and how long that takes?

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