One of the many fun things about owning this 1957 house is that it gives us an excuse to hunt down mid-century modern furniture. In any other kind of house, having more than a few pieces of it would start to look theme-y… but here, each room practically cries out for clean lines and bright fabrics.
While we would love to buy all of our period-appropriate furniture from dealers who have lovingly and professionally refinished them, that’s just not in our budget right now. As the saying goes, our taste is champagne, but our finances say beer. So that leaves two options for finding the first few pieces we really need: Craigslist, and estate sales/auctions. If you’re willing to buy furniture that has some dings and scratches, or needs to be reupholstered or otherwise overhauled, this is the way to go. We’ve been pretty lucky with Craigslist, but had never tried an auction until a few weeks ago.
Recently I signed up for email alerts with EstateSales.net and AuctionZip… so now any time there’s an auction or estate sale within 50 miles or so, I get a notification. For the most part, the furniture in these sales hasn’t been anything we could use (but seriously — if you’re in the Philly area and like Colonial style furniture, you will CLEAN UP at these things… sign up for those lists immediately, they have gorgeous stuff). But then a few weeks ago, I got an alert that a local auction house was going to do an entire sale of nothing but Mid-Century Modern furniture, art, and housewares! eeeeEEEEEeeee!!!!!
The best part was, the auction was going to be done both live AND online. So Jack and I wouldn’t have to take a day off of work to attend. Yay! We created an account on Live Auctioneers (the site they were using for the online component), and started going through the listings to see what items would fit with what we were looking for. There were over 700 items for sale, and SO many amazing pieces, it was almost impossible to choose! You know that meme with the otter who says “I need dis”?
That was us with the auction catalogue — every other item had us going, “I NEED dis!!!! I need DIS!!!!!” We ended up with a massive “I need dis” list that we had to try to narrow down. So we decided to take advantage of their open-house hours the day before, and see everything in person so we could prioritize.
We met up at the auction site after work on the night before the big event, and let me tell you: it was an absolute WONDERLAND. Room after room filled with beautiful things to covet. Lamps, artwork, glassware, and every type of table or seating you could imagine. So many pieces, they were literally piled on top of each other. (It took me 20 minutes to find a set of tables on our list, because they were underneath a bunch of chairs. LOL) And I brought not only our “I need dis” list, but also my handy design binder so I could compare stuff to the design items in our house.
Yay! Let’s get started!
After about an hour and a half of list-checking and perusing, we’d crossed more than half of the items off our list and added a few in their place. It was so helpful to see everything in person, because no matter how good the online photos are, you can’t always tell if something is 100% perfect unless you see it up close. And we left there with an “I need dis” list that was pared down, focused on what we really needed, and (we hoped) within our budget. All that was left to do was enter our bids online, and then watch everything unfold.
We entered our bids on Live Auctioneers, and determined our max bids from a combination of the auctioneer’s estimated selling price and prices we found when we Googled similar items. And given our tight budget, we forced ourselves to really make those numbers the max we would bid… we didn’t want to get swept up in the auction craziness and end up with a bunch of stuff we loved, but a bunch of debt as well. No way. But sadly, that meant that the day of the auction we lost quite a few of the pieces we had hoped for.
One of these days, Jack and I will spend a day in person at an auction to see what the whole live experience is like. But for now, the online experience was quite exciting as well. The Live Auctioneers site showed all of the bidding in real time, so you could see each incremental bid unfold. And all you had to do was hit the red button at the bottom of the screen to add in a higher bid… which again, would be dangerous if you risked going over budget for something you really wanted.
No, we did not bid on this item… certainly not $2000 for a lamp! (Although I’m sure whoever bought it is very happy with their investment.)
This was one of my favorites, even though we didn’t bid on it — this sofa reminds me of a package of hotdogs.
And here is a credenza that we really REALLY wanted… I took this photo because I thought it would be a shot of us winning it… but after I snapped this, the bidding took off again and went waaaayyyyy over our budget so we lost it. *weep*
I figured out pretty quickly what the pacing of the auction was; they were doing roughly one item per minute. So since I had the lot numbers of the pieces we were bidding on, I could estimate the time they’d be called and then log onto the site to see the bidding war. Most of the items we wanted weren’t until the evening hours, so Jack and I spent a chunk of the evening staring at our computer screens — no lie, at dinner, both of us had our laptops on the table and we were debating each item as we ate. 🙂 It was a blast, and a fun thing for us to do together… we can’t wait until we can save up a bit more for the next few pieces and do it again!
In the end, we got 3 of the main things we wanted:
This pair of fun orange vinyl armchairs…
A grandfather clock for the dining room (Jack had his heart set on this one):
And this cool Nelson-style bench for our living room.
There’s still a lot we need to get, but this is a marathon, not a sprint. While it would have been fun to furnish a chunk of the house in one go, it will be just as much fun to do it piece by piece over time!
So a few pieces of advice from the newbies, in case you ever want to give auctions a go:
1. Ignore the “estimated price” the auctioneer lists for each item when you’re making your bid. Research the piece so you understand what it will probably go for, and then from there decide what you’re willing to pay for it. Auctioneers will give a low estimated price for 2 reasons: 1. to get people bidding so they don’t think it’s out of their financial reach; and 2. to be able to tell prospective sellers that they regularly sell pieces for X% over estimated price, which makes them look good.
2. If you can, see the items in person before you bid. It’s especially helpful for scale — we took a “cool little lamp” off our list because it turned out to be a much bigger behemoth than it seemed in the photos… and also nixed a pair of chairs we loved because they were much smaller in person and wouldn’t have been proportionally right for our space.
3. If you reeeeally want an item, don’t wait to jump in and bid, because you might lose it! There was one particular piece Jack and I really wanted, and 3 bids popped up in rapid succession so we waited for the on-screen warning before we placed our bid… instead of an on-screen warning, it went right to “sold” status, for WAY less than we would have offered for it! I’m sure people heard our horrified screams for miles around. Not sure if it was a software bug on the site, or the auctioneer just thought no-one else would bid and didn’t want to waste time… but we learned our lesson the hard way.
4. If you really do have a strict budget, don’t get too emotionally invested in a particular piece. There are a couple of pieces we lost because the bidding went bonkers, and I was really bummed because I’d had my heart set on them. I’d started mentally decorating spaces in our house with those pieces in mind. And we didn’t get ’em. Whomp, whomp.
5. Don’t forget that there will be a buyer’s premium on top of your bid, typically 15-25%. So if you buy something for $100, you’ll owe $100 plus $15-25. Make sure you look at the premium head of time, and factor it into your budget.
Are you an auction expert with advice to share? We’d love to hear it before we do this again!!!