Gapers Block has ceased publication.

Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Wednesday, June 19

Gapers Block

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Earlier this year, my friend Tom found a painting at an estate sale. Every time he gets something good he likes to call every antiques dealer he knows and tries to get a feel for what it's worth. When he called me, I could hear the excitement in his voice as he described the painting. It was by a listed artist and was a very desirable piece. I checked online and found out that another painting by the same artist sold the previous month for $2,200 at an auction on the East Coast. Tom was really happy because he had only paid $250 for the painting. He asked me what he should do and I offered to get him in touch with an art dealer I knew. I felt that was the best way to sell the painting. Tom said "Nah, those guys just rip you off. You never get what it's really worth. I'll just sent it to the same auction that other painting sold at. That way I'll get what's it's really worth". I gave Tom the information of the auction house and wished him good luck.

Last weekend I ran into Tom and I asked him about the painting. He looked at me and said "Ah, that damned thing. Not good, not good at all." I asked him what happened. "Well for starters I had to pay $40 to ship the painting to the auction. The auction house charged me a $70 "catalog fee" to include a photo in the action catalog. The day of the auction there was a terrible storm so no one showed up at the auction. The painting ended up selling for $440 dollars. The auction house took 20 percent of the sale. With all the costs and fees, I ended up losing money on the whole deal."

When you put something in an auction to sell, you're taking a gamble. Tom found out that the hard way. Sometimes there are factors beyond your control. Sometimes you can swing things in your favor. The good dealers always seem to make excellent money when they put items up for auction. I called a couple of them and asked them for advice, tips and tricks. Here are their answers in no particular order.

• Find out about all fees before consigning at an auction. (Every single dealer I spoke with mentioned this one.) Auction fees can be a nasty surprise when it comes time to get paid.

• Try to negotiate fees. Some auctions will drop catalog fees if they want to sell the piece bad enough. Regular consigners get better rates.

• Make sure you get a receipt for everything you consign to an auction. There are hundreds of items in a typical auction. Things can get lost or misplaced. Your receipt is your only proof of ownership.

• Know your auction house, and work with the best. Ask around for recommendations. Why give something valuable to someone with a bad reputation?

• Make what you're selling presentable. Most antiques can be repaired or cleaned without affecting the value. A grubby, dirty piece will get fewer bids.

• Avoid selling at auctions that fall on major holidays. Fourth of July, Labor Day, etc.

• Check your listing for mistakes. Auction houses often start listing items for auction on their websites before the catalog is printed. Even the best auction houses can make mistakes.

• Give the auctioneer as much information as possible about the piece. Don't assume they know what you do. I know one dealer who gives the auction a printed artist biography for each painting he consigns.

• Check the payment schedule on your contract. Some auctions pay you within one week. Some can take as long as 60 days to issue you a check.

• Use specialty auctioneers. If you have a rare antique toy, put it in a specialty toy auction. Better paintings should go to auctions specializing in art.

The best advice came from an old time dealer I know named Kenny. He's 79 years old and still sells at the antique shows. When I called him and asked about consigning to auctions he told me, "I've been putting antiques in auctions for over 50 years now, and no matter what you do, sometimes ya get screwed. But then there's those times when you get a thousand bucks for some piece of junk you thought would only bring ten — that makes it all worth while."

Caveat vendor.

If you have any questions about antiquing in Chicago, email me at or visit me at The Chicago Antiques


This week's auction pick:

Saturday, September 17th, 10am

Northwest Municipal Conference Surplus Vehicle & Equipment Auction
Mount Prospect Public Works Facility
1700 W. Central Road, Mount Prospect, Illinois

This auction features surplus vehicles from northern suburban towns. There are tons of Crown Victorias, pick-ups and vans for sale. Click the link to see pictures of all the rides. They all look to be in pretty good shape and have been well maintained. It's a great place to buy a used vehicle. Bring a friend to drive home your new ride.

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About the Author(s)

Ron Slattery is a collector of interesting junk and other wonderment, and is one of the experts behind The Chicago Antiques Guide. You can visit him at and

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