Shabby chic, bric-a-brac, antique, vintage, period, retro, modernist or kitsch – however it’s described, you’ll find it at a Maltese auction or house clearance. Of course, one man’s rare find is another’s junk. Auction aficionado Annabel Mallia gives us a flavour of what to expect under the hammer in Malta, and advises on how to watch, wait and then blink an eye, twitch a whisker and grab a bargain – or not.
Some people may get their thrills jumping out of planes or scaling Everest but, I assure you, I experience this kind of adrenalin rush when bidding at an auction. The satisfaction of a successful bid on an item which you really covet is immense, plus you have the smug satisfaction of having outbid another bargain-hungry customer. But beware pitfalls.
Plan & Observe
Auctions are advertised weeks before the event and you should take the opportunity to go to one of the previews, purchase a catalogue in order to read the description of the item and examine the object carefully. The catalogue lists the items in the rooms in which they are seen at the preview, usually starting with the kitchen items and working through to the bedrooms. There may be 2,000 items sold during an auction will lasts 4 days or more; no two auctions are the same.
Most auctioneers are scrupulous and are not out to cheat you, but it is a case of caveat emptor (buyer beware); you have the opportunity to scrutinize the items, to ask questions of the auctioneer and to do some research. If you are buying a valuable painting, for example, it may come accompanied by documents which detail its provenance: who commissioned the work, who painted it, where it was intended for and so on. It makes the piece more valuable and more interesting.
If it is an antique you are after you should either have some knowledge of antiques or take someone with you who knows what to look for. For example, old drawers usually have dovetail joints at the rear (triangular interlocking frieze). If the pieces wood are placed one against the other and nailed, be suspicious. Likewise if the bottom of a drawer or some part of the item is made of plywood. Plywood was sometimes used in the last 60 years but it is usually close-grained birch ply.
At a house sale there are maybe 100 people present; maybe 50 of them will be bidders. However, each person will have different items in mind. One lady wants old kitchen items, a gentleman wants a Turkish carpet and a third person wants 10 books.
Many first-time bidders worry that a blink or twitch may be mistaken by the auctioneer for a bid, and that they will end up being obliged to buy something which they did not want. I have never known this to happen, in fact. At a house sale the people sit ranged on chairs or standing and the auctioneer sits on a raised platform (which may in some cases be a sturdy table which will be sold later on).
The auctioneer starts the bidding at a price below that which he hopes to sell for in order to judge the level of interest of the audience. If no one bids the price may be lowered or the item ‘bought in’ (kept by the auctioneer). There may be a minimum price required by the seller who has given the item to the auctioneer to sell (the reserve price); you can check this with the auctioneer before the sale starts.
If your bid is successful you will be asked to give your name which will be recorded along with the catalogue number of the item and the price. I like to note the starting and selling prices of items whether I’m bidding or not, just to get a feel for what sells and what doesn’t; what commands a high price and what is difficult to sell.
After Sale Considerations
One thing to bear in mind is that the auctioneer will add VAT to the amount you have bid, plus his fee. These facts should be written on the catalogue as should the dates and times when you must come to collect the item. If you are buying large items of furniture you will need to cost in the removal firm whom you will have to ask to bring them home for you.
A Final Word…
So, for a successful, pain-free auction…examine the items thoroughly beforehand, decide on an upper limit for your bid, calculate in the other costs which are detailed above, bid clearly and do not carried away. Impulse buys are to be avoided. As are battles with other bidders where you go past your limit or buy something just to spite the other person.
Heartfelt advice from one whose garage contains 25 pedal bins……don’t ask! They were a bargain, really!
But it’s worth noting as the adrenalin rushes that good deals can be had (bins aside); you can pick up large pieces of furniture very cheaply as people live in smaller lower-ceilinged houses and flats nowadays and these bulky items do not fit nor sell well.
Who buys what?
After many auctions, I’ve got to know what types go for what items and why. As a rule of thumb…
– Expats who are living on a pension usually go for practical stuff from a house sale such as blankets and duvets on the first day. They don’t have the money, nor the need, for the expensive stuff.
– Younger expats also may be tempted by homely items such as a set of Denby breakfast bowls.
– Some expats and Maltese who are lovers of kitsch and less bothered about ‘real’ antiques, are seen going for job lots of ‘decorative items’ containing kitsch figurines and painted key holder racks.
– Younger, wealthier Maltese, often in business or the professions, tend to go for the more expensive items, even if not usually things younger couples would really need. They are making an investment and perhaps echoing their parents’ taste.
– Antique dealers though are the real big spenders.
Photo: courtesy of Emma Maria