True confession time: I have never attended an antiques auction, mainly because I feared getting caught up in the heat of the moment and coming home with useless –– or, worse, ugly –– purchases. My visions of those events consisted of dueling would-be buyers frantically trying to outbid each other until the gavel is slammed.
So much for that fantasy.

As an antiques market hub, New Orleans boasts several outstanding auction companies with worldwide clientele and a vast number of choices in furniture, jewelry, porcelains and art. Although the sales aren’t for the faint of heart, they aren’t the agonizing Maalox moments I’d envisioned. In fact, auctions in this city are downright civilized and attract both regulars and novices (like me) who are looking for that perfect piece.

So after wandering through huge inventories at Neal Auction Co. and New Orleans Auction Galleries Inc. one week, I decided to try my luck at one of the live antique events at St. Charles Gallery Inc., the sister company of New Orleans Auction Galleries. Here, items of lesser value from the main company are presented and sold in a casual setting.

Days before the sale, I received a thick, glossy catalog filled with mostly black-and-white photos and short descriptions of the auction items. The furniture, some quite lovely, wasn’t what I needed at the time. But some of the decorative items appealed to me, particularly the set of three early-20th-century French confit jars and one large wooden dough bowl that would be perfect for displaying Creole tomatoes or Ruston peaches in my kitchen!

The catalogs listed probable price ranges for more than 1,200 items in parentheses at the end of the description. In the case of the confit jars, the estimated prices were set at $200 to $400, and the wooden bowl was listed as between $75 and $125.
Items, called lots, were shown on a screen, PowerPoint style. In quick succession, the antiques popped up, were briefly described by the auctioneer and were bid on.

Audience members discreetly held up their cards each time they bid. Staff members placed offers for buyers who were participating by phone. Fax bids were also considered. Each transaction took place quickly and without rancor. It was all quite pleasant.

“If the auction is on schedule, you’ll see 100 items go through each hour,” says Nairne Frazar, who attends many auctions throughout the year. Antiques are sold in the order they are listed in the catalog. The confit jars and wooden bowl were No. 528 and No. 532, telling me that their bidding would be much later in the day.

Antiques, like other valuables, are only worth what someone will pay for them. In the case of auctions, some items sell for much less than they would in a free-market retail setting. The reverse is also true. “All it takes is two people desiring the same item to drive the selling price far beyond the estimated value,” says Ruthie Winston, director of business development at New Orleans Auction Galleries. “When that happens, the drama of auctions unfolds.”

One local auction regular is Kevin Kelly, owner of Houmas House Plantation and Gardens and a chic condo in the Warehouse Arts District. Kelly is often on the search for New Orleans and Southern antiques for Houmas House and grand turn-of-the-century Vanderbilt-era antiques for his New Orleans home.

“It’s about the incredible variety a buyer can find at an auction,” he says. “I can see more different pieces at one auction than I can see in days of visiting stores.”  Kelly points out that most antique stores turn over their entire inventory in about three years, but an auction house will have all-new inventories five or six times a year.
In the end, I got those three jars for the lowest estimated price, $200 plus a 20 percent buyer’s fee, and was gleeful with the purchase and the price. The antique wooden dough bowl, estimated to go for $75 to $125, went for a whopping $550, so I was outbid early on, lending credence to Winston’s theory.

Auctions are a great way to find good antiques at, sometimes, good prices. But sussing out the techniques to buying and selling takes time, knowledge, patience –– and you have to know when to stop. I felt ill-prepared to make a big purchase in my maiden voyage through this sea of choices. But I can feel my courage building. And next time, I won’t need the Maalox.

New Orleans Auction Galleries

St. Charles Gallery

Neal Auction

Matthew Clayton Brown (on-site auctions)