Back when men fought over empires, somewhere around 193 AD, it is said that the entire Roman Empire, or what was left of it, went up for sale at an auction. Apparently, barely-used iron breastplates were going for a song.

Fast forward a few hundred years, and auctions are still a great place to find a bargain. For example, when Kathleen Hamilton had to furnish a new apartment, she found a sofa, desk and even floor mats at an auction. In fact, she furnished her entire abode with auction buys. “I even bought a teak dining table and chairs for $200 and then, because I only wanted the chairs, I resold the table for at least half the amount,” says Hamilton, a crossword puzzle creator, who was living in Victoria at the time.

Now living in Montreal, Hamilton hasn’t shopped at an auction recently, but her days in Victoria taught her much about getting a great deal. To help you find your own deals, we asked the pros for their best advice about buying at auctions.

Auction houses

If you’re new to the auction world, you should visit a few different ones to get a sense of how they work. Start by looking in your local newspaper for listings.

To figure out if an auction house is reputable, visit a few times to see if there many regulars in attendance and if the auctioneer has a good rapport with the audience. At Wooden Rose Auctions in Halifax, owners Margie and Steve Carter say they attract regulars through their honest dealings.

For example, the auctioneer always tells the audience if there’s a flaw in the goods or if a painting is a reproduction. “We share our knowledge with our audience and let them make up their mind whether they’re willing to pay for it or not,” says Margie Carter. 

Wooden Rose also informs buyers about reserve items, for which the seller will only part with the goods for a fixed amount. That price is not announced, and the item won’t be sold until the reserve amount is reached.

Preview the goods

Most auction houses offer a viewing of the goods a few days or hours before the actual bidding begins. It’s a good idea to inspect the items before you buy them, not only to see what you want before people start yelling out prices during the actual auction, but to look closely for any flaws. Some auctioneers will also let you test a product if it’s electrical or motorized.

Unlike the warrantee you get with a new blender from a big-box store, products from auction houses don’t come with guarantees. If someone sells the auction a fridge and it was working up until the day you bring it home, it’s not refundable — you take your chances.

Every auction house has a list of terms and conditions on their bidding cards or at the auction; make sure you read them to understand what you’re buying.

Don’t get caught up in bidding

“Do I hear $100?” The yelling and fast-paced bidding of an auction can be quite intimidating, yet exciting. But if you’re not careful, you can find yourself caught up in a bidding war.

To keep from frantically overspending, auctioneers suggest setting a limit for yourself ahead of time. “If you have a fixed price in your mind about what you’ll pay, you won’t get caught up in the fever of a bid and pay too much,” says Gary Warner, co-owner and auctioneer for Warner’s Auction in Colborne, Ont.

And if you don’t have a clue what something is worth, ask the auctioneer or the people on the floor. “They’re really a fountain of knowledge, and if they’re willing to, they can tell you approximately how much the article will go for,” says Hamilton. “Some of them are so proud of what they know and they can estimate almost bang on.”

Another way to tame the auction-bidding beast is to make a bid on and item before the actual auction. A pre-bid allows someone who isn’t present to make a bid beforehand. And if you have the highest bid during the auction, the item is yours.

Watch the pros

Another secret to getting a great deal: pay attention to the dealers. The dealers are those in the audience that own antique stores and are at the auction to buy stock.

“If you go one bid higher than the dealer, say $350, you’re still getting a heck of a deal because if you bought it from him you’d be looking at $600,” says Margie Carter.

But beware: dealers may be buying for private clients and may go higher than if they were only buying inventory for themselves. It’s easier to spot a dealer at a small town auction, where locals know dealers, than in urban setting where dealers aren’t as well-known or as obvious in a crowd.

Damaged goods and box lots

Hamilton once bought a teak coffee table that she later decided was too big. “I refinished it by rubbing the wood with steel wool and teak oil, took it back to the auction house and resold it at a profit.” She suggests looking for furniture or other items that are easy to repair or that you could fix yourself and make some money off.

If you’re seeking one-of-a-kind items, ask the auctioneer what’s trendy or what people are collecting.

A fun purchase at an auction is called a box lot. After someone dies and their house is sold and the major contents are auctioned off, small articles that can’t be sold individually such as books, plates, silverware or magazines are often stuffed into one box. It’s like buying a surprise bag of goods.

“It’s a bunch of knick-knacks, and you can usually get them for $4 to $5. We usually sell them throughout the auction,” says Warner. You never know what you might find in a box; sometimes, they contain great finds.

The last word on auctions, don’t forget about the auction house’s cut. Auctions make their money from charging a fee that ranges between 10 and 20 percent of the total price. Before you make a bid, find out the fee first.

Melanie Chambers is a freelance writer in London, Ont.