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Shopping at auctions

``There's a bargain in every sale'' is a common saying in the auction business. A bargain, of course, is simply ``an advantageous purchase'' and is not at all confined to the local junk auction. In fact, experience shows that the local junk auction can be very short on bargains, and conversely, the most prestigious auction house can be a very happy hunting ground for the collector in search of a bargain. The notion of attending the most up-market auctions to acquire the best bargains probably appears somewhat perverse. Indeed, at the best of these auctions, 20 will buy nothing more than the catalogue. But while the major auction houses constantly hit the headlines with record prices, it is not generally known that a large proportion of the items they sell cost less than 500. Those items compete for attention with much finer pieces and seldom look their best under such circumstances -- they might be passed over by sophisticated buyers. But in a different context they would be the star items and command substantially higher prices.

It is often the case that such pieces bring higher prices at so-called country auctions than they do in town.

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It is at these auctions that the inexperienced buyer should take the greatest care, especially where there are a few good pieces. At a recent auction in a small town in darkest Suffolk, everybody who could lay claim to being anybody in the world of antiques was there, despite the fact that it was the middle of summer and there had been minimal advertising of the 20 or so good pieces.

Having assumed, wrongly, that no one else would be there, the hungry buyers competed fiercely with each other until prices soared to heights of which any London auction house would have been proud.

Another type of auction to be wary of is the house sale. No other kind is so popular, or so potentially unpredictable. A house sale is also popular with auctioneers and vendors since, invariably, the mundane household items that are virtually unsalable in a sale room are hotly contested. But the bargain hunter might strike it rich if he has his eyes open and his wits about him.

While the wicker linen basket in the bathroom may have brought a world-record price, the unrecognized Renaissance sculpture in the kitchen corridor might be going for a song -- and this is not an apocryphal example.

The key to successful bargain hunting is recognizing the item out of context, and keeping quiet about it! So often, among hundreds of items and scores of people, we simply do not see under our very noses what we do not expect to find there. But quite apart from ``hidden'' treasures, the bargain hunter at auctions should be ready for the moment, which often occurs, when the collective concentration lapses and one or two lots fall into a vacuum of interest.

Later, when everyone has woken up, the canny buyer will be asked, to his great satisfaction, ``How did you manage to pick that up?''

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