5 Questions to Consider Before Placing an Online Bid

Rebekah Kaufman
Published on

So you saw something intriguing on an online auction platform like Bidsquare, Liveauctioneers, or Invaluable – and you want to make it yours! These and other auction house-specific bidding platforms have made auctions accessible and available to collectors worldwide. Here are five things to consider before placing an online bid. These take into account costs, distance, and other not-so-obvious logistics. As always, be as informed as possible before you raise your virtual paddle!

Preparing to place a bid online. Image from the author.
Preparing to place a bid online. Image from the author.

1. How (and When) Do I Bid in an Online Auction?

Online platforms are open 24/7 for bidding and browsing. You may want to place your bid days or weeks before the sale to personally “mark” that item as of interest. Some auction houses accept presale bids through faxes, mailed-in bids, and phone calls. Some offer person-to-person, real-time live telephone bidding throughout their sales. 

It is fun, exciting, and nerve-wracking to bid online as your lots of interest comes live under the hammer. For the most part, auction houses like to sell 60 to 80 lots per hour. It is critical to know the exact date and time your auction takes place – and in what time zone. This usually isn’t a big deal, except when it is! For example, my favorite sales take place at an auction house in Germany. Although their events often kick off at 10 am their time, this is 4 am my time here in New England. If you snooze, you lose – literally in this case!

2. What If I Need More Information About a Lot?

The way an auction house responds to a request for more photos or lot details is very telling about the way they do business and how much they prioritize customer service. It is always ok to contact an auction house with specific questions about a lot or to request more photos. If you need to see a clearer image of a maker’s mark, or you suspect a little unnoted damage or restoration on an item, trust your instincts and request more pictures. Condition is relative – and subjective – but an essential part of any cataloging entry, especially if there is no way to inspect an item in person. Ask away!

If your request goes unanswered, that is a red flag that there might be issues with the item, and perhaps passing on it might be your best option.

The COVID-19 pandemic demanded auction houses large and small, including Sotheby’s, to fully embrace online bidding. Image from the auction house.
The COVID-19 pandemic demanded auction houses large and small, including Sotheby’s, to fully embrace online bidding. Image from the auction house.

3.  What Are the Costs Associated With Each Purchase in an Online Auction? 

At the end of an auction, winning bidders are on the hook for the actual bid (called the hammer price) and a buyer’s premium (which can vary broadly from 0% to over 40%.) Other costs, which vary greatly between auction houses, may include a platform fee, bidding fee, taxes on the item, VAT (value-added tax on some overseas purchases), and of course, shipping (but more about that in just a bit.) When calculating your total bidding budget, keep these things in mind, as they add up very quickly!

4.  Which Payment Methods Do Auction Houses Accept?

It is a good idea to call or contact the auction house before the sale and register as a bidder. As part of this exchange, you might want to ask about bidding limits and see if these can be lifted for you if you expect to make a significant purchase at the sale. 

Although most auction houses accept credit cards as payment, some charge an additional percentage to the final price to cover transaction fees. This can add up very quickly if you are making a big purchase. Some accept PayPal, but again, the auction house may add a percentage to cover currency or transaction fees. Wire transfers are usually acceptable, with some banks charging, and others not, for this service. Online services like Xoom.com are convenient ways to send money worldwide from your bank account. Payments by cash or checks usually don’t have additional fees associated with them. Be aware of your options and make sure that the auction house is willing and able to accept payment in the form you can provide. 

5.  What Are My Shipping Options?

While some auction houses offer in-house shipping, others do not. If you live near the auction house, you can pick up the item personally. Just let the auction house know you are coming and when; there should be no charge for this. As contradictory as it seems, online bidding platforms can help you find auction houses in your neck of the woods. That way, you can avoid shipping fees. Here is a guide to Bidsquare’s Auctions Near Me feature.

Screencapture of Bidsquare’s Auctions Near Me feature.
Screencapture of Bidsquare’s Auctions Near Me feature.

If the auction house offers in-house shipping, ask for the different options (overnight, priority, first-class, ground, etc.) and make the choice that is best for you – balancing your budget and urgency to receive your wins. Auction houses that do not have in-house shipping usually have relationships with local branches of FedEx, UPS, DHL, and other international logistics companies. If you need to arrange for third-party shipping, ask the auction house for their list of transportation partners, then contact a few for a quote. The partners will need to know the name of the auction house, date of the sale, lot number, and a brief description of the item so that they can generate an estimate. 

Regardless of the shipper, you may consider inquiring about shipping insurance, asking that your items be wrapped in a waterproof bag as part of their packing process, and requesting that your items are posted with a signature required for delivery.

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James Ardis
James Ardis
Senior Writer and Editor

James Ardis is a writer, editor, and content strategist focused on the auction industry. His company, James Ardis Writing, has partnered with auction houses, galleries, and many clients outside the art world.

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