If you’re in the market for a Rothko or a Warhol, the big auction houses remain king. But for shoppers who regularly troll the Brooklyn Flea, Antiques Garage, and eBay in search of rare or unusual pieces, the city’s robust auction network shouldn’t be overlooked. This largely untapped (and, at times, tricky-to-infiltrate) world caters primarily to industry pros and super-collectors, though anyone can get in on the deals—and yes, there are some to be had if you know where to look. What follows is a layperson’s guide to navigating the urban auction universe, from scoring designer sofas at rock-bottom prices to buying foreclosed brownstones in Brooklyn.
Antique and vintage décor on the cheapish.
Blink and you’ll miss a wingback chair going for $350 or an Ultrasuede Vladimir Kagan sofa for $3,000 at Roland Auctions New York (80 E. 11th St., nr. Broadway; 212-260-2000), which blasts through as many as 100 lots an hour at its daylong sales. Items for bid at its May 4 auction include a nineteenth-century tulipwood writing table (estimated between $4,000 and $6,000) and a pair of vintage Danish-modern children’s chairs ($80 to $100). At a recent Hutter Auction Galleries sale (444 W. 55th St., nr. Tenth Ave.; 212-247-4791), a rococo-style console was won for $1,600, though it was estimated up to $3,000; Hutter’s next sale is May 11. Art Deco and mid-century-modern addicts can also get their fix at Capo Auction Fine Art and Antiques’ monthly sales (36-01 Queens Blvd., Long Island City; 718-433-3710), which recently sold a couch that had once lived in Radio City Music Hall’s Nicotine Room for $16,800. Its next auction is May 18. And while Christie’s might not be the first place you think of for affordable, lower-end items at its monthly Interiors sale (20 Rockefeller Plz., nr. Fifth Ave.; 212-636-2000) are often sold without reserve; scoring a Scalamandré-upholstered sofa for $200 isn’t unheard of.
Status bags and sequined bolero jackets.
Twice a year in New York, couture expert Karen Augusta (augusta-auction.com; 802-463-3333.) hosts fashion-and-textile auctions with merchandise sourced from estates, museums, and historical societies. Bargain hunters can score vintage men’s suits for $400 to $800 and, for women, sequined bolero jackets, Victorian beaded bodices, lace shawls, and embroidered Turkish scarves for $100 to $300. The next auction, scheduled for November 13, takes place at Landmark on the Park (160 Central Park W., nr. 76th St.; 212-595-8410). Those with beaucoup bucks could do worse than Birkin shopping at Heritage Auction’s 775-lot luxury-handbag sale on April 28 at the Fletcher-Sinclair Mansion (2 E. 79th St., nr. Fifth Ave.; 212-288-8660). The lot includes limited-edition bags from Hermès, Chanel, and Bulgari, plus several crocodile Birks with starting bids of $40,000, and one pre-owned by Kim Kardashian beginning at $10,000.
Books and Ephemera
Stately home libraries start here.
Bibliophiles on the hunt for bookshelf showpieces gravitate to one of Swann Galleries’ twenty book auctions a year. Highlights from a recent sale included a first edition of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, hammer-dropped at $14,000, and a collection of eleven first-edition works by Beat poets including Allen Ginsberg, sold for $1,080. Rare-book auctions at Bonhams (580 Madison Ave., nr. 56th St.; 212-644-9001) take place every few months; a single page from a first-edition Canterbury Tales sold for $8,125 in December. On April 23, Doyle New York (175 E. 87th St., nr. Third Ave.; 212-427-2730) will auction the insurance policy for the Titanic in a sale that also has a first-edition Jane Eyre; eighteen pen-and-ink drawings by Maurice Sendak; and, spookily, a locket containing strands of Charles Dickens’s hair.
For the aspiring collector without a collector’s budget.
Deals are not unheard of at Swann Auction Galleries (104 E. 25th St., nr. Park Ave., Ste. 6; 212-254-4710), which specializes in works on paper; last September, an etching of Picasso’s Corps Perdu: Tête went for $1,200, while a Matisse lithograph, estimated as being worth up to $15,000, sold for $7,800. Swann also hosts vintage-poster sales five times a year, auctioning off striking political, travel, and Art Nouveau prints for as little as $500. At the SculptureCenter’s game-show-style Lucky Draw auction (44-19 Purves St., nr. Jackson Ave., Long Island City; 718-361-1750), held every spring, each $500- ticket-holder comes away with works from the likes of Claes Oldenburg and Alice Aycock, many valued between $2,000 and $7,000. New York upstart Paddle8 (paddle8.com), meanwhile, is now the online home to some of the city’s most popular art benefits, including the BAMart Silent Auction. The Brooklyn Academy of Music’s annual sale gives bidders a go at pieces by contemporary-art stars like Tom Sachs and Marilyn Minter; see the works in person April 23 to 28 at The Hole on the Bowery before bidding. Also up for grabs on Paddle 8 through April 23: Artwork from the set of Gossip Girl. The print of Richard Phillips’s Untitled (Gossip Girl: Spectrum), which hung in the Van der Woodsens’ living room, is estimated at $5,000.
Wine and Spirits
Buying beyond the liquor store.
A booze auction is a smart way to sample wines that don’t always retail on the East Coast—or anywhere, for that matter. Bonhams wine specialist Gary D’Urso says some of the house’s more affordable lots include bottles from California vineyards that only sell via mailing list. Acker Merrall & Condit (160 W. 72nd St., nr. Amsterdam Ave.; 212-787-1700) regularly hosts live auctions. The next, on April 27, will take place at Michael White’s Marea on Central Park South—a nice alternative to the de rigueur hotel-conference room setting; rare bottles can start at $125. For the hard stuff, Bonhams is the only house in the city to hold whiskey auctions, selling everything from a prized Macallan Millennium 50-Year-Old ($13,090) to the elusive Pappy Van Winkle (four bottles of the fifteen-year vintage sold for $774). An April 29 auction includes a pre-Prohibition bottle of Green River Bourbon 1907 (a.k.a. “The Whisky Without a Headache”), estimated between $600 and $800, and six-bottle bundles of Old Grand-Dad, non-diluted Maker’s Mark, and Johnnie Walker Swing from the eighties and nineties, expected to go for as little as $130—or around half the market price.
The real diner-chic aesthetic.
Your local pizza shop went bust and is now a TD Bank. But where did all the Formica tables go? There’s a good chance they’re with Michael Amodeo & Co. Inc. (212-473-6830; amodeoauctions.com). The restaurant auctioneer sells industrial-size ovens, mixers, stoves, and griddles, as well as front-of-the-house items like chairs, bar stools, and chandeliers, often for 25 to 50 cents on the dollar of their retail value. (Dinner plates, pots, and pans go for as little as a buck a piece.) When Amodeo helped clear the contents of the arcade attached to Nathan’s Famous in Yonkers last December, games like Ms. Pac-Man and Street Fighter went for $500 to $1,000. Amodeo’s auctions take place multiple times a week, with locations varying; check the website for details. Manhattan’s Mountain Auctioneers (212-875-8844; mountainauction.com) also moves stock for shuttered businesses; on April 29, it’ll auction the contents of a midtown café and gift shop, which includes coffee grinders and cappuccino machines.
Plundering the attics of A-listers.
Half the fun of memorabilia auctions is checking out the bizarre items up for bid—most of which are prohibitively expensive anyway. Guernsey’s (65 E. 93rd St., nr. Park Ave.; 212-794-2280) skews toward baby-boomer nostalgia, with past auctions selling off Jerry Garcia’s guitars and JFK mementos, including the president’s bifocal Ray-Bans. In 2011, Hutter made headlines for auctioning the estate of Jack Kevorkian, which counted, among other things, his driver’s license ($2,500) and typewriter ($1,900). (Alas, his euthanasia machine didn’t sell.) Snap up coveted John Hancocks at Swann’s biannual autograph auctions; the next one, scheduled for May 23, includes the signatures of Jack Kerouac ($3,500 to $5,000), Oscar Wilde ($4,000 to $6,000), and Lord Byron ($2,000 to $3,000), as well as a pencil-written letter from Emily Dickinson describing the biblical battle of Jacob and Esau as “a trifle” compared with “the skirmish” in her mind ($6,000 to $9,000). From April 24 to May 3, GottaHaveRockandRoll.com’s online shoe auction puts Ray Charles’s Bally leather loafers on the block ($1,500 to $2,500), along with Elvis’s Vegas boots, Britney Spears’s lyrics-inscribed wedges, and several pairs of autographed shoes worn by Sarah Jessica Parker on the set of Sex and the City; proceeds benefit La Guardia High School. Sites like CharityBuzz.com and BiddingforGood.com are also worth checking; last May, Origin Theatre Company used the latter to auction off a date with Downton Abbey star Brendan Coyle. (Winner Sandra Doshner, who bid $20,000, was treated to a carriage ride through Central Park with Mr. Bates, to whom she read poetry.)
A bottomless market for would-be Trumps.
For experienced house flippers, NYForeclosures.com and PropertyShark.com track upcoming foreclosure auctions at local courthouses. At 2:30 p.m. on May 2, for instance, a Borough Park commercial space will go on the block at the Kings County Courthouse (360 Adams St., nr. Johnson St., Room 224), starting at $167,400 with a lien of $790,229. At 11:30 a.m. on May 8, a three-story building in Park Slope, estimated at $107,160, will be auctioned off at the Kings County Sheriff’s Office (210 Joralemon St., nr. Court St., Room 911). While it is possible to get financing for property purchased at auctions, Misha Haghani, a principal at Paramount Realty USA, says you’ll need to get your funding secured in advance. It’s prudent to arrange a visit to the property with an engineer, who can do an inspection on-site, and to have your attorney review the purchase-and-sale agreement before signing anything. “There’s often no contingency with auctions, so if you win, you have to close or you will lose your deposit,” says Haghani. “But for the serious buyer who doesn’t want to go back and forth with offers and counteroffers, an auction can be a timely way to buy.”
Squad cars, firetrucks, and old classics up for grabs.
New York’s Department of Citywide Administrative Services moved its Brooklyn Navy Yard auctions online last year and now sells many of its fleet vehicles via e-retail site Copart.com. Anyone who doesn’t mind a few dings and dents can bid on Crown Vics, Priuses, GMC trucks, and more, some of which have starting bids as low as $200. (Just read the fine print: Some rides are good for parts only; others have structural or flood damage.) Copart further liquidates inventory for rental companies and car dealerships, unloads repossessed cars for banks, and sells vehicles deemed salvageable by insurance companies. The stock ranges from recent-make Lexuses, Audis, and BMWs to classics like a 1963 Chevy Corvette. Select cars can be viewed in person at Copart’s Long Island yard (1983 Montauk Hwy., Brookhaven; 631-776-0994).
MTA’s Lost & Found, NYPD’s stolen merch, and more.
Nowadays, the NYPD holds its auctions on PropertyRoom.com, a repository for the unclaimed lost, seized, and stolen items dumped in the back rooms of police departments. Most auctions start at $1, with a large cut of the sales going back to the department and community from where the stuff came. The most sought-after items include jewelry, electronics, bicycles, and power tools (construction sites are hot spots for theft, according to Property Room CEO P. J. Bellomo). The New York City Transit’s Asset Recovery Group periodically sells off lost-and-found property via mta.info; recent scores include a pair of Tabitha Simmons flats ($7.51) and an evening gown ($2.01). To make an offer on surplus transit materials—old escalator steps, elevator timing belts, and the like—e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. The state’s surplus auctions, meanwhile, are handled through eBay; place bids on everything from bathtubs to record players to old classroom furniture at stores.ebay.com/nysstore.
Who wouldn’t bid on a colonoscopy machine?
Four auctioneers on the strangest items they’ve ever sold.
Billy Roland, partner at Roland Auction:
“A shrunken human hand. It was black and burned-looking and from the Middle Ages. It sold for $1,200.”
Philip Weiss, owner of Philip Weiss Auctions:
“A size 37AA shoe belonging to Robert Wadlow, the world’s tallest man. It looked like you could put a steering wheel in it and drive it around.”
Arlan Ettinger, founder of Guernsey’s:
“In 1986, we auctioned off figures from Lillie Santangelo’s World in Wax in Coney Island. She had presidents and movie stars but also these strange tableaux depicting notable murders of the fifties and sixties.”
P.J. Bellomo, CEO of Propertyroom.com:
“It’s a tie: either a colonoscopy machine or a coffin.”