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