Investing in vintage pieces or making a major purchase at auction may seem like a daunting process, but auction houses can be an excellent way to source gorgeous, timeless finds that will make your space sing. So, what must one keep in mind when seeking out a piece that will stand the test of time?
We spoke with several interior designers, as well as experts at famed auction house Christie's, to gather insights on the items—and shopping strategies—to prioritize. With a bit of planning ahead of time, you’ll be well on your way to sourcing some gems that you’ll cherish for years to come.
Read on, then go ahead and place that bid.
Do Your Research
Go ahead and do a bit of window shopping before you intend to bid on items—and then, set a budget and commit to it once you determine how much the pieces you’re after generally cost.
“Buying pieces at auction can be a very fun and very dangerous game. Not only is it addictive, but it’s very easy to get caught up in a bidding war at the last second. My best suggestion when first starting out with purchasing furniture or décor at an auction is to do your research. Watch lots and lots of things, even if you don’t intend to bid or buy, as this will help you monitor what things sell for and will allow you to set your own limits for similar items when it comes time to bid and buy.” —Shannon Claire Smith, founder and principal at Shannon Claire Interiors
“It's always safe to buy at an auction, otherwise the auction house would not be in business. The only warning I would give is you have to know your number and don't go past it. The only mistake I make at auction—more often than I'd like to admit—is I get caught up in the bidding and not letting go.” —Suzanne Duin, interior designer and shop owner at Maison Maison
When making an investment purchase, considering a multitude of possible uses is always a smart idea. Not sure where to begin? Items such as vases, silver trays, and pots are extremely multifaceted, Christie’s team members say.
“I think that form and function are the most important things to make an object stand the test of time when it comes to antiques. There are a lot of things that scream one period or another, which is great in a certain context, but I think for something to really never go out of style, it has to be of a shape and decoration that looks timeless in any era and ought to be easily repurposed. For example, this little Chinese blue and white jar and cover that we sold in our recent Collector sale date from the 18th or 19th century, but it looks just as good today displayed in a bookshelf as it does on a coffee table with a bunch of tulips in it.” —India Dial, junior specialist of European Decorative Arts at Christie’s
“A silver coffee pot can be used every day to make breakfast a little more special, especially on a tray for serving breakfast in bed. It is also perfect for a more formal brunch, luncheon, shower, or the end of a dinner party. Trays can be used in endless ways—carrying dishes or tea to a dining room, bedroom, or outdoor space. They can be displayed propped up on a sideboard or lying flat under a tea set. Trays can be used on vanities for perfumes and toiletries and make great tabletops when used on upholstered ottomans.” —Jill Waddell, specialist and Head of Silver at Christie’s
Seek the Classics
In addition to keeping your eyes peeled for versatile decorative items, you’ll want to search for larger pieces that will complement a variety of interior setups, as your design style will likely change over time. Casegoods such as wooden chests are a popular choice.
“You cannot go wrong buying a five-drawer English chest, a walnut buffet, or a French-type Louis Philippe chest of drawers. Even in contemporary interiors, you can live the rest of your life and you will always use those pieces. A classic walnut or mahogany buffet, whether marble-topped on not, English or not, is a classic piece that will stand the test of time. You can’t mess up buying it at auction.” —Suzanne Duin
“A vibrant paint-decorated American chest is a wonderful investment piece that is sure to stand the test of time. The vivid colors and bold patterns can fit into many types of interiors, and each piece has its own unique history told through the painted surface. For example, paint-decorated Hadley chests were made for women upon their marriage and often display their maiden initials. Vermont paint-decorated chests were painted with grain-like patterns to mimic high-style wood veneered furniture that was more prevalent in urban areas. These unique histories allow collectors to find pieces that they connect with on a deeper level. Also, practical and sturdy in form, a paint-decorated chest is a piece that can be displayed in many parts of the home and also passed down to family members.” —Sallie Glover, junior specialist of American Furniture and Decorative Art at Christie’s
Take a Firsthand Look
In the era of online shopping and lenient return policies, we’re used to quickly adding items to our carts without much scrutiny. But, in the case of searching for pieces at auction, you’ll want to do your due diligence before making a purchase.
“When buying at auction, be sure to read the condition reports carefully, but it is also a good idea to come and see the pieces in which you are interested in person. Also, don’t be afraid to reach out to specialists for more photos or information. You will find specialists are extremely passionate about their respective categories and more than happy to answer questions.” —Sallie Glover
“You should also request the condition report so you are well aware of any shortcomings. If you plan on reupholstering, for example, the condition of the fabric doesn’t matter much, but if you’d like to keep the original wood finish, it is important that it is in very good condition. The other important thing to consider is the scale. I have made this mistake in the past solely based on the photo only to learn that the item was the wrong size or too bulky for my taste. You are not able to return items, but all auction houses have preview days if you have the time to visit ahead.” —Joan Enger, principal at J. Patryce Design
“When it comes to selecting that forever piece, make sure you are doing your due diligence: is this a piece that you can purchase elsewhere? If it's not—and it likely isn’t, as auctions are a great source for unique and special things—check and triple-check the dimensions. Is there any damage? I tend to stay away from pieces that have damage to the working components like doors or drawers, as these can be harder to repair. Surface damage to wood, stone, or glass, can often be repaired or replaced, and you often have time to get quotes from specialty vendors if needed during the auction’s duration. If you keep these things in check, you might leave the auction with that special or one-of-a-kind piece.” —Shannon Claire Smith