When you think "auction," you perhaps picture an elegant room crackling with excitement, testosterone, and Shalimar, an imposing mise-en-scène where the staff, decked out in black tie and attitude, spot bids as cool young women murmur into wireless phones to moguls whose rooms -- or wives -- cry out for Rembrandt and Chippendale. It's true, the soigné evening rites at Christie's and Sotheby's are a fascinating, high-theater spectacle of the rich and media-tropic. But the city's auction houses move a vast amount of goods, decorative and useful, for hundreds, not thousands, of dollars; the average lot price at Tepper Galleries, a good resource for home furnishings and decorative objects of varying age and value, is only $400 to $600. It's surprisingly easy to buy reasonably priced, comfortable home furnishings at auction -- and you'll enjoy living with a little piece of (someone's) history instead of a bland and banal item with a glassy shine that covers who-knows-what wood by-product.
Like prewar apartments, these older pieces are often better-made than brand-new furnishings. And as a rule they maintain -- or sometimes increase -- their value, so that later, when you switch from Victorian to Bauhaus, you can put them up for auction again. This certainly beats the fate of the average retail purchase, which becomes virtually worthless upon crossing your doorstep. And unless you're shopping for a museum-quality dining table, chances are good that you'll pay less at auction than you would for the same thing at a retail store or to-the-trade showroom. In December, Christie's East sold a Biedermeier secretary for $1,840. And Tepper recently sold a nine-by-twelve-foot Karastan rug for a hard-to-match $225.
All of the city's auction houses compete at this level, so it's impossible to say which one is most likely to have that specific item you're hunting for -- say, a German mantle clock. But they do have separate personalities. Tepper is perhaps the most unassuming, holding mixed property sales every other Saturday, usually selling in one auction every kind of household furnishing you can think of. It also holds the occasional specialty auction. The very user-friendly William Doyle Galleries is frequented by decorators, neighborhood yuppies, and scruffy dealers who mutter in the back of the room during auctions. It holds approximately 60 wide-ranging auctions annually. Phillips has perhaps the least-defined market niche. It conducts twenty sales a year in categories ranging from general, European and American furniture, which have wide ranging and often appealing price points, to contemporary and Impressionist pictures, which carry much fancier numbers.
Even Christie's and Sotheby's, which thrive on Hepplewhite and Homer, are just as happy to put Aunt Tillie's old dining-room table on the block. They've managed to successfully straddle the divide between fabulous artifacts and used furniture. Sotheby's designates its lower-end auctions Arcade sales; Christie's has Christie's East.
Before you head out to your first auction, there are a couple of things you need to know. Immutable rule No. 1: Examine the property. Nowhere is the expression caveat emptor more apt than in a public auction room. So take a good look -- a really good look -- at the lots that interest you. Exhibitions are always free and open to the public. Sit on the chairs. Open the drawers. Pay close attention to the catalogue description, especially furniture measurements; all too often buyers fall in love with things that are much bigger or smaller than they imagine. Be wary of terms like Chippendale (hand-crafted around 1775) and Chippendale-style (often not much older than Aunt Tillie). And it's perfectly appropriate (in fact, it's considered quite normal) to upend any piece of furniture that interests you, to examine the backs of mirrors and paintings and rugs. Most catalogues carry an estimated price range, based on recent sales for similar pieces, next to each lot, but it's merely a guideline.
Don't be afraid that you'll blow your bonus by rubbing your eye. Secret bidding signals are prearranged and reserved for high rollers. Do worry about succumbing to the mounting tension, the speed of the escalating banter, the need to win. Which brings us to immutable rule No. 2: Don't even think about raising your paddle without deciding in advance what your maximum bid is. Tell your partner, write it on your palm, repeat it mantralike, inwardly -- but stick to it. (And don't forget to add on a 15 percent buyer's premium and another 8.25 percent in sales tax.) Auction fever, which these businesses depend on, can strike without warning and quickly leads to maxed-out credit cards and, eventually, couples counseling.
Auctions blend entertainment and possibility. You might acquire a jaw-dropping bargain -- a brass six-armed Dutch chandelier that brought $600 at William Doyle Galleries, perhaps -- or draw a blank. Either way, it's an afternoon well spent. Do I hear $500?
* Christie's East 219 East 67th Street (212-606-0400) January 26-27, European furniture, decorative arts, and ceramics; February 15, Impressionist and twentieth-century art.
* William Doyle Galleries 175 East 87th Street (212-427-2730) January 26, English and Continental furniture and decorations and old-master paintings and drawings; February 9, "Belle Epoque": nineteenth- and twentieth-century decorative arts; February 15, "Dogs and Cats in Art"; February 23, fine furniture, decorations, and paintings.
* Phillips International Auctioneers 406 East 79th Street (212-570-4830) January 25, furniture, decorations, silver, and carpets.
* Sotheby's 1334 York Avenue, at 72nd Street (212-606-7000) There are no live Arcade sales until June, but check out ongoing online auctions at www.sothebys.com
* Tepper Galleries 110 East 25th Street (212-677-5300) February 5, fine and decorative arts; February 10-11, jewelry, books, furniture, decorations, and works of art; February 19, fine and decorative arts.