Do you avoid the big auction houses, thinking that everything is out of your budget? Or do you assume that collectibles you are looking to sell aren’t “worthy” of consigning to a big auction house? Let’s learn some big auction tips for both buyers and sellers, and dispel some myths in the process.

Recently, the Cardhound Collector’s Club Board hosted two auction house owner-operators, Al Crisafulli (Love of the Game) and Ryan Christoff (Cuban Baseball Auctions). We discussed the questions above and more. I condensed some of the chat into the following quick guide to succeeding at big auction house sales.

Why Use an Auction House?

First, some folks might ask, “why not just eBay?” And for many collectors, eBay is fine. If you’re shopping for mid-grade Topps icons, there’s no need to scour the auction houses. There are likely dozens or more in any grade readily available on eBay.

But if you are shopping for rare or unique items (note: “rare” does not always mean “high priced”), auction houses are your best bet. I collect primarily Cuban cards of Negro League players. Of this kind of material, Ryan says “There are definitely not hundreds of Caramelo Deportivo albums (left in the wild). Maybe not even dozens. I think in the future most of what is offered for sale will come in the form of collectors consigning to auction houses.”

Isn’t eBay an Auction House?

No. To be clear, eBay isn’t an auction house. Al refers to eBay as auction software, and a “payment processor.” In other words, on eBay, you are paying a fee to use software that helps you list and sell items. Every aspect of selling successfully falls on you. And yet as a seller you still pay a fairly hefty fee.

In contrast, when you consign to an auction house, you not only get the software–you are paying for all kinds of expertise you may not personally possess. Al continues, “The auction house is taking possession of the material, handling all the research, evaluation, photography, and description-writing. They execute the auction, collect the payment from the winning bidders, ship the material to the winner, and pay the consignor.”

Auction houses also have flexible closing options that are meant to insure that consignors receive the highest possible prices for their collectibles. “With auction houses,” Al says, “the closing process works differently than eBay, in that with eBay, once the clock hits zero, the auction is over.  While auction houses use a variety of closing methods, all of them permit bidders to continue bidding on an item until the bidding is actually finished, meaning auction houses get much closer to that exciting “going once…going twice…sold!” thing you see at live auctions.”

Aren’t Auction Cards Expensive?

Sometimes. OK, often. Sure, the best and highest valued collectibles in history have mostly sold via elite auction. But that doesn’t mean everything is expensive. Al says that in general, yes, LOTG is seeking lots over $1,000 in value, but also notes that there are plenty of exceptions to this:

  • The item is really cool.
  • The item is a 19th Century piece (we take almost anything from the 19th Century)
  • The item is related to the Negro Leagues, Federal League, Players League, PCL, barnstorming, etc.
  • It’s part of a big consignment and there’s no obvious way to include the item in a lot
  • We’re breaking up a set
  • It’s really interesting-looking and old, and would look great in the catalog

At the most recent Cuban Card Auction, items close anywhere between $12 and $12,000. You can have fun and build your collection via auction on just about any budget.

How To Choose the Right Auction House

Whether buying or selling, choosing the right auction house(s) to frequent is obviously important. A specialty auction like Cuban Baseball Cards is for buyers and sellers of . . . Cuban Baseball Cards. These auctions don’t have the same traffic as a bigger auction house, but the buyers are very focused, invested, and motivated to acquire rare treasures. An obscure Cuban card might get lost in a sea of Mantle, Ruth, and Cobb at a bigger auction. Once you browse the main auctions a time or two, you’ll get a feel for the market and specialties of each (prewar, high end, lower end, etc.).

Buyer Tips

As a buyer of rare or more obscure collectibles, it’s good–but difficult–to keep tabs on all of the main auctions. Sometimes your wish list card will pop up where you don’t expect. I know I’ll find Cuban cards at the Cuban card auction, but sometimes they pop up at REA as well. If you’re paying attention, this can work in your favor. You can use paid services like VCP (Vintage Card Prices) to track wish list cards that are up for bid. A few more tips include:

  • Try to have a few quick keywords you can type in to see if your must-haves are available. But it can also pay off to really scour the catalog for items that are not described well. Sometimes the needle in the haystack approach can pay off.
  • In terms of bidding strategy, everyone has their own approach. Personally, how I choose to approach an auction item depends on what it is. If it’s something I think might fly under the radar, I save my bids until the end. If it’s a must-have, sometimes I bid really strong day 1, like a dog marking its territory, hoping to discourage other prospective buyers. Any strategy can work, or can backfire.
  • In terms of finding good deals, I’m a big fan of buying mixed lots, if the equity is there. I’m not afraid to sell off items to recoup value, and in fact, this is the main way I have built my collection on the cheap. “$5,000” might sound like a lot to spend–but sometimes I can recoup $k and keep the card I really wanted for free.

Seller Tips

The most important choice is the first one: to whom should you consign your cards or collectibles? After all, it’s the auction house’s job from that point forward. Other basic checklist items include:

  • Look for an auction house that sells similar items to yours.
  • Look at their closed prices to see if they are setting the market.
  • Get a few quotes and compare any fees.
  • If your items are high end, see if the auction house will commit to a featured position.
  • Check if they have a paper or digital catalog.
  • Read through their descriptions to see if they reflect knowledge and care.
  • Make sure their photography is professional.

Basic due diligence can go a long way in making sure you achieve the most possible net proceeds from your consignment.

If you have any other tips for auction buyers or sellers, please drop them in the comments!

And if you enjoy all-vintage content like this, please Join Cardhound and hang out in our Forums!