How to Find the Best Vintage Pieces at Auction Houses Like an Interior Expert
Auction houses aren’t your everyday shopping destination. The image of a man in a suit ceremonially calling out numbers and brandishing a wooden gavel probably comes to mind. At the less glamorous end, there’s eBay and the frantic refresh of your screen when you try to send another bidder to the post – praying the item’s condition hasn’t been over-embellished. But there is a sweet spot – and it’s one insiders would rather you didn’t know.
Considered the preserve of dealers and collectors, interior designers have been exploiting online auctions of unique artwork, furniture and rugs for years. And since many other houses have embraced the digital switchover, you can do a lot of shopping (geddit?) without having to leave home.
Savvy renovators, such as Laura Jackson, founder of the television network and Glassette, and journalist Louise Roe, have caught the auction bug. “They’re so underrated and such an untapped treasure chest,” says antiques enthusiast Roe. “I’m a big proponent of buying what you like, not necessarily what will go up in value.” Jackson notes The Saleroom, where she found a gentleman’s wardrobe for £50 for her nursery and painted it green. “I have alerts set up for a particular sofa shape or a certain designer, so when a piece goes up for auction, I get an alert,” she reveals.
For Yasamin Feehily-Ghazizadeh – who recently moved from London to a grand Victorian house in Cheshire (which she documents on Instagram) – items bought at auction are a quick, cheap and unique way to furnish her period property. Case in point: A 14-seater Chippendale-style dining table was purchased for £100. “I really like the immediacy,” she says. “My parents currently have a 21-week lead time for a new sofa, while I can bid on something over the weekend and it’s at my house the following Wednesday.”
Blame it on the #cottagecore trend or the fact that store closures have halted in-person savings during closures, but the auction buyer is getting younger. At Essex-based auctioneers Sworders, improving its website imagery to support online shopping and investing in social media promotion has helped attract a younger demographic. Auction Technology Group, which powers The Saleroom’s software, saw a 23% increase in the number of under-35s using the site last year. “The sustainability element of it is definitely driving demand,” says chief operating officer Richard Lewis. “People are realizing that instead of buying something flat with little interest or history, they can get something that lasts 100 years and can be resold if it’s no longer needed.” And it’s not just china vases and gilt-edged plates: At the top of her furniture-wanting list in 2021 were practical items like dressers, armchairs and, unsurprisingly, desks.
So how does it work? Despite being 195 miles away and having never set foot on its premises, Feehily-Ghazizadeh has found an affinity with Lots Road Auctions in Chelsea. “I bought a lot of Persian rugs there. They have plenty of stock and it changes every Sunday which is a good time for me to scroll through my phone. She can bid online and if she is busy while the auction is taking place, she can place a mail-order bid – depositing the highest amount she is willing to pay.
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Marketplaces, such as EasyLive and The Saleroom, aggregate lots from auction houses across the UK. The search functions are a lot like eBay, with keywords and geographic parameters allowing you to find the closest items. Any blemishes or markings on an item must be declared, but if you’re local you can view the lots in the flesh before the auction opens. Roe did just that when she was looking for several chests for her new home in south London and headed for a sale at Criterion Auctioneers in Islington. “I took my mum and the whole afternoon was great fun. I had a real buzz with the auction and I can see how easily addictive it would get! And everything was really good business.