When I owned The Pan Handler LLC, it was common for me to seek out and attend vintage cast iron auctions across the United States. I also participated in online auctions of cast iron. It was one of the ways I obtained new inventory. Sometimes people had decided to downsize, and an auction was an easy and efficient way to sell their entire collection all at once. Or, a collector had passed away and family members did not want to maintain the entire collection.

When a cast iron collection is at auction, you’ll find a room full of collectors as well as sellers and people hoping to add pieces to their kitchen arsenal. Bidding is fierce; especially for highly-sought-after pieces in pristine condition.

Anna Haas – the current owner of The Pan Handler LLC – and I attended the Griswold & Cast Iron Cookware Association’s 25th Anniversary Convention in Springfield, MO May 4 – 6, 2017.

Part of the festivities at the convention included a spectacular auction of cast iron pieces that had been contributed by other G&CICA members. Josh Miller, the Editor of Southern Cast Iron and Taste of the South Magazines, joined us at the Convention and participated in the auction fun with us. Josh won a lovely Sidney Hollow Ware cast iron skillet. It was Josh’s first-ever auction!

Josh Miller, Editor of Southern Cast Iron and Taste of the South Magazines, with his bidding “paddle” (no. 10) and the lovely antique number 9 Sidney Hollow Ware cast iron skillet he won at the G&CICA auction on May 5.

Tip #1: Know and Understand the Terms & Conditions of the Auction.

Always know the terms and conditions of the auction you are attending. At some auctions, there may be a “buyer’s premium” added to the final bid price. It can be 10%, 15%, or something different altogether. When deciding your maximum bid, know whether your maximum bid will actually be the amount you will pay or whether some additional charge will be levied.

If you are attending an online auction out of your area – one you are watching remotely via Proxibid or some other online program – be aware that you will incur packing and shipping charges in addition to any buyer’s premium and the bid for the item. Those charges add up quickly. If UPS comes and picks up and packs and ships your piece(s) from an auction location, they will charge a premium. Cast iron is heavy and expensive to pack. Additionally, it is brittle and can break during shipment and needs to be carefully and securely packed. In my first remote online cast iron auction, I paid over $200 in shipping charges! I learned the expensive way not to bid at an online auction where the piece would be packed and shipped unless it was a piece I simply could not pass up, and/or the price was too good to be true.

Pieces are typically sold “as is, where is” – meaning no returns and you are responsible for understanding what you are buying before you bid. You are also expected to pay for the item whether you agree with the shipping charge or not. “Buyer’s remorse” is not a permitted reason for backing out of your contract to purchase.

Tip #2: When sets of items are offered, know and understand in advance whether you are bidding on one item in the set (“buyer’s choice”) or the “lot” of items, or whether your bid will be multiplied by the number of items in the set.  

At a large cast iron auction, items offered for sale are typically (but not always) listed by number.  You will typically have an auction listing that list each item in the auction by that number. Sometimes, you will see a group of items offered as a “lot.” That means that one bid is buying all items in that grouping. Conversely, you may see a group of items listed with a number after them. For example, you may see 7 trivets listed with the number (7) after. What this means is that the winning bid will be multiplied by that number – here, 7 – and that multiplied number purchases the entire lot. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you are getting a great deal by buying all 7 trivets for $30, when really you are buying EACH of the 7 trivets for a total of $210!

If a group of items is offered as “buyer’s choice”, that means that your winning bid entitles you to select any or all of the items in that listing for the bid you made. In the trivet example above, your $30 bid would entitle you to choose one trivet for $30, two for $60, 3 for $90, and so on. This is a good thing when you do not want every piece in the lot – i.e. if only two of them are what you want or need.

Tip #3: Review the auction list and determine which pieces you are interested in, and set a maximum price you are willing to pay for that piece, if in excellent condition. 

Anna and I sat down before the G&CICA auction and talked strategy. It’s always a good idea to look at the list of auction items in advance; I’ve learned the hard way that it is all-too-easy to get caught up in the auction excitement and overbid, or to bid on items that you really don’t want or need. Determine what you want/need and set a maximum of what you are willing to pay.

Anna (left) and I reviewing the G&CICA auction list and talking strategy.

Tip #4: Attend the auction preview and carefully examine each piece you are considering. 

After Anna and I reviewed the auction list, we went to the auction preview. This is a must. Sometimes flaws in pieces go unnoticed by the auctioneer and hence are not listed in the description of the piece. Or, the auctioneer might not “specialize” in cast iron and may not know what is important about the piece (i.e. who the manufacturer is, the casting quality, etc). Still other times you may determine that a piece that you had hoped to buy is actually a reproduction.

It is essential that you examine each piece that you hope to buy. If you find a significant flaw such as a crack in the piece which is not noted in the description of the piece – or determine that a piece may be a reproduction or “fantasy” piece – inform the auctioneer so that they can make a note of it when presenting the piece for auction.

There is no substitute for examining the piece in person. At online auctions, of course, you are at the mercy of the photos and description. It is far riskier to bid on online auctions for that reason. Similarly, your own eye is always more reliable than that of another person. If you have another person examine the piece and report back to you, you must rely on that person’s expertise in determining a maximum price. Auction pieces are typically sold “as is where is,” so no returns are possible. You bid at your own risk.

As you examine each piece, notice its condition, and modify your maximum bid price accordingly. I often modified my maximum bid – either higher or lower or eliminating the piece completely from my wish list – after examination. Other times I would notice a piece that I hadn’t previously considered for purchase, but added to my list after examination.

Tip #5: Strategically pick your auction seating. 

Auction “regulars” often have a favored place to sit during auctions. Harold R. Henry, about whom I wrote a blog piece for The Pan Handler LLC, likes to sit in the front row on the aisle. Some folks like to sit in the back row, where they can observe who is bidding on various pieces. As for me, I’m fine in the middle on an aisle, so I can move around and see everyone. If I am planning to buy a lot of iron, it is easiest for the auction “helpers” – the people who walk up and down the aisle showing each piece and delivering the piece upon win – if I have empty space next to me where pieces can be placed. At one of my first auctions, one of the auction helpers pointed out to me that cast iron is heavy, and it would have been appreciated if I had sat closer to the front so that they didn’t have to haul all of those pieces back to me. I think he was teasing, but as with most teasing, there was an element of truth to it as well. 

Tip #6: Do not bid first.

The auctioneer will start the bidding at an “opening” price. For example, the opening bid might be $100. Unless no one is bidding on the piece at all and the piece is about to be withdrawn from the auction, I never bid first; I always wait for others to start bidding. There is no point in opening a bid at $100 if the price will be dropped and you may ultimately get it for less.

I also typically wait until the bidding has slowed before I jump in – I don’t want to drive up the price on a piece I am hoping to buy. When the auctioneer starts saying “all in all done” or “last call” or “going once, going twice,” you know that the auction is about to end and it is your last chance to jump in and bid. Once the gavel drops and the auctioneer says “sold!” your chance to bid is over. 

Tip #7: Keep your wits about you and do not get caught up in a bidding frenzy. Stay to your maximum bid. 

Especially when new to auctions, it is easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of an auction and overbid. Keep your wits about you and stay to your maximum bid.

Once bidding has begun, the auctioneer will increase the bidding incrementally. For example, a bid may increase by $5 up to $25, then $10 up to $100, and then increase to $25 increments. Over $1000 it may increase by $100. You can read a bit about bid increments on the Sotheby’s website, here.

You need to listen very carefully to the rat-a-tat-tat chant of the auctioneer to clearly hear the amount at which you are bidding. Again, it is easy to get caught up and find yourself overbidding. Until you are used to the chant of the particular auctioneer, it can also be difficult to understand what amount, precisely, is being bid. Live auctions move very fast! Better to sit back and listen and watch at the beginning of an auction instead of jumping in and finding out you overpaid because you did not understand the auctioneer’s chant.

Here is a very short snippet of Jimmy Davis serving as auctioneer at the G&CICA cast iron auction on May 5, 2017.

We had the great pleasure and privilege of seeing 82-year-old Harold R. Henry conduct what he says will be his last-ever auction. Although Harold usually auctioneered at cattle auctions, his first auction some 60 years ago was for a cast iron piece. It was only fitting that his last service as an auctioneer would also be for cast iron. We all enjoyed seeing Harold – gentleman farmer, cast iron collector, and all-around wonderful person – show off his auctioneering skills.

Here is a short snippet of Harold serving as auctioneer at the G&CICA auction on May 5, 2017. Enjoy!

Tip #8: Hold your auction paddle high when you are bidding, and put it in your lap after placing your bid. 

When you register to bid at the auction, you will be given an auction “paddle.” In my experience, the paddle is usually a piece of card stock with your bidding number written on it. When you want to bid, hold your card up high over your head so that the auctioneer can see it. It is your responsibility to make sure the auctioneer can see that you are bidding. Put the paddle back down in your lap after your bid. If you keep your paddle in the air, the auctioneer will presume that you are continuing to bid – i.e. if someone bids against you and your paddle is still up, the auctioneer will enter a higher bid for you. The only time I keep my paddle up in the air is when I am buying the piece at whatever price – then I hold it up in the air and only put it down when my maximum has been reached. Doing that invites people to “drive up” your bid, however; it’s not typically a wise practice, in my experience. 

Especially once you have placed a bid, be careful not to “accidentally” bid by making eye contact with the auctioneer and nodding, holding your hand up, etc. I have never inadvertently bid on a piece, but I have heard stories!

Tip #9: Know exactly what you are buying and spending. Once you have won an auction item, it is yours. Period. 

There is no going back once you have bid on and won an auction item. You can’t take a look at it when it is handed to you and change your mind. That is part of the “as is, where is” policy of live auctions, and why it is very important to carefully examine the piece personally before you bid. 

Tip #10: Do not remove the piece until you have paid for it. 

Leave your pieces in the auction room until you have paid for them. If there is some reason why you need to move them from the room before they have been paid for, let the cashier know and make sure they know you are returning. You may have given your driver’s license or credit card information to the registration desk at the start of the auction, but the last thing you want is for someone to accuse you of sneaking off with your auction wins without paying!

Do you have other auction tips to share? Let me know in the comments!