Auctions are undoubtedly one of the most thrilling parts of pre-loved jewellery hunting. The variety of jewels, cascade of precious gems, and curation of designer pieces with exceptional provenance beats anything you’ll find at retail stores. You can bid on everything from exquisite vintage bijoux and rare jewellery antiques to everyday trinkets and contemporary masterpieces, sometimes pre-owned by celebrities or even royalty. Who can forget Liz Taylor’s exquisite auctioned collections that have broken records over the years? Or even the more recently auctioned jewels of actress Hind Rostom (nicknamed the Egyptian Brigitte Bardot) that sold out at Sotheby’s last year?
But with so many choices and often confusing practices, navigating the world of period jewellery auctions can be intimidating for first-time buyers. What information do you need before investing in an item? And how do you know you’re snagging a good bargain? Which auction houses can you trust and are there hidden costs you should factor into your budget?
Here’s everything you need to know before raising your paddle and some personal tips to help you find — and win — pieces you’ll love.
LIVE VS ONLINE JEWELLERY AUCTIONS
As part of my vintage collecting journey, I’ve been sourcing fine jewellery and decorative items mainly through auctions over the past seven years. Estate auctions are also a great place for acquiring rare finds, but since they’re tricky to attend in person, I’ll usually source items from the secondary market, paying a bit of a premium. I have attended several live auctions via real-time streaming, but most of my activity is via online auctions.
Although it’s hard to recreate the drama and excitement of live events and jewellery estate sales, virtual auctions are certainly here to stay after the massive surge in online sales during lockdowns. They’re convenient because you can participate from the comfort of your home without the hefty travelling expenses. The obvious disadvantage is that you can’t see the items in person, along with the shipping risks and costs, making choosing a reputable auction house crucial. Legitimate online sellers are easy to contact, happy to provide more photos of the jewel you’re interested in, post shipping costs upfront, and ensure you get your piece in a timely manner.
HOW AUCTIONS WORK
Buying jewellery at auctions isn’t as simple as walking into a store and swiping your credit card. First, you’ll need to register with the auction house, whether you’re bidding in person or online. Next, you’ll need to verify your identity with a photo ID and proof of current address before you’re eligible to participate. If you’re a new client, particularly if you’re bidding on high-value lots, you may also be asked to provide a deposit or financial reference. Always register at least 48 hours in advance, as each auction house has its own rules, and you might need to provide additional information. Once the boring stuff is taken care of, then comes the exciting part: bidding!
There are several ways to bid at live auctions. The most immersive way is in person, where you must arrive at least 30 minutes before the starting time to collect your paddle. If you bid by telephone, you’ll get a call from an auction representative, who will place your bids in the room as directed. A great tactic for those who find live auctions too nerve-racking or tend to overspend out of excitement is submitting an advance (or absentee) bid. This allows the auctioneer to place incremental bids on your behalf until your maximum is reached.
Similarly, with online bidding, you can set your maximum, and the automated system will gradually raise your bid until you win the lot or your budget is exceeded. If you’re bidding manually, make sure to stay on top of the auction, especially during the crucial final minutes.
A great source on the topic I highly recommend is this podcast on how to bid successfully at jewellery sales by Rapaport.
AUTHENTICATE THE SELLER
Before you even consider placing a bid on that vintage engagement diamond ring that stole your heart, be sure to thoroughly verify the auction house or seller so that you don’t fall prey to a scam. Always check if they have an adequate number of sales and go through both their five- and one-star reviews with a fine comb to determine the general consensus on their performance. Distinguished names like Sotheby’s and Christie’s are equivalent to a quality stamp, but if we’re being realistic, they’re probably not the best place to start.
Enter LiveAuctioneers, a secure aggregator of international auction houses trusted by millions of savvy bidders worldwide. The platform hosts some of the best jewellery auctions online in real-time for renowned and small auction houses from across the globe and offers multiple payment methods. From vintage jewellery and decorative antiques to collectable coins and rare autographs, you’ll find anything depending on the category you’re interested in purchasing. Other reputable houses I’d recommend are Heritage Auctions, Leland Little and Hindman Auctions.
PLAY DETECTIVE AND DO YOUR OWN RESEARCH
Once you’ve found a piece of jewellery that piques your interest, it’s time to put on your Sherlock Holmes hat and investigate. When attending live auctions, make sure to equip yourself accordingly. Bring a camera, magnifying glass, and torch with you during preview days to help in your analysis of the piece you’d like to purchase. Look at the jewellery in natural light or use a dealer’s diamond light to reveal a gem’s true colours. If the auction organiser permits, take snapshots of the items for additional protection via photographic evidence of how they should look on the auction day.
In online auctions, carefully read the item description and zoom in on the auction gallery. Lean on fully transparent listings about the item’s age, provenance, condition, size, carat, etc. The more detail the seller provides, the better the indication of the product’s authenticity. Once you have enough information, research previous auction results on how similar pieces have performed historically and set your benchmarks. Beware of listings that seem too good to be true, like a five-carat diamond ring priced at $150, for example.
When in doubt, simply ask — there’s no such thing as a stupid question at jewellery auctions. If you cannot physically inspect the pieces prior to the auction, send a friend or ask for more pictures of the items you’re interested in buying. Get in touch with the auction house specialists, and don’t hesitate to request more information. If you’re still unsure what you’re looking at, talk it over with an antique dealer or vintage specialist.
Here’s a short checklist for the boxes you need to tick:
- What country/location did the jewellery come from originally?
- What year/decade was it crafted?
- Does it carry any signatures/hallmarks? (it should if it’s a precious metal like gold or if it’s a designer piece)
- Where did the gemstones, if any, come from?
- Are the stones natural or synthetic?
- Are diamonds accompanied by a laboratory grading report on the four Cs: cut, colour, clarity, and carat weight?
- Has the item undergone any repairs?
- Who was the jewel’s previous owner?
- Does it come with a certificate of authentication, valuation papers or condition report, and from whom?
Having said that, not all jewels will fulfil all the above criteria, and that doesn’t necessarily make them undesirable. The idea is to align the hammer price with the information on hand to ensure that you’re paying a fair price. The more information and authentication documents accompany a piece, the higher its hammer price will likely be.
SET YOUR STRATEGY
Before placing any bid, it’s important that you’re clear about your target. Are you buying an item for self-indulgence, resale purposes, or as an investment?
If you’re aiming to build a memorable collection, buy from the heart. There will be practical purchases you can wear every day, but your personal vintage/antique jewellery box should include pieces with a special meaning to you. When buying for resale purposes, consider what is in demand, as well as the guaranteed authenticity and versatility of a piece — can a brooch be worn as a pendant, for instance? In terms of investment, earlier jewels with precious stones and designer signatures will only grow in value in the coming years.
STICK TO YOUR BUDGET
Because there are few things as exhilarating as finding an elusive piece of jewellery you’ve been seeking for ages, getting swept away is always a risk. It’s very easy to overspend when buying purely based on emotions, so be mindful and know when to stop. Former Sotheby’s auctioneer Joanna Hardy advises: “You must never, ever want something desperately. You can’t do the desperate bit. You’ve got to be pretty cool and have a cutoff point.” And you should be just as cautious when bidding from home. Even outside the frenetic atmosphere of live auctions, auctioneers can be very persuasive, and it sometimes feels like you’re having a personal conversation with them.
BE AWARE OF THE ADDITIONAL COSTS
Remember that the hammer price is NOT the final price you’ll pay. You’ll have to factor in the buyer’s premium, which can range from 13% to 30% depending on the winning bid, as well as any shipping costs, customs or excise charges, applicable taxes, and overhead premiums. So if you have committed to bid a maximum amount of $3,000, stay within that budget, no matter how sparkly that diamond looks on the auction day. After all, this is supposed to be a happy experience, and you don’t want to regret paying an arm and a leg afterwards. There’s always going to be the next auction, and I firmly believe that a jewel will find its way to its destined owner, so there’s no point in dwelling on the “ones that got away”.
All in all, consider buying vintage jewellery at auctions like a sport. It takes some time before you get good at it, and you need a clear strategy and flawless execution to achieve your target. Be prepared to face challenges; arranging third-party shipping, for example, can often be a hassle, and remember that pictures can sometimes be deceiving. But you will build experience and connections over time, and hey, I’ve often been pleasantly surprised with purchased pieces that turned out to be better in real life!
I hope these best practices will help get you through your first auction and land you that perfect pre-loved piece just in time for Second-Hand September! Have fun treasure-hunting, and don’t forget to visit my online store for more exquisite vintage and antique jewellery finds.
Til next time, happy bidding!