American Philatelic Society

Tips for Selling at Auctions

Auction sellers who are disappointed with their realizations often complain to the APS that they have been “ripped off” or taken advantage of by auctioneers. Generally, we find that there is no basis for an official complaint. Below are a few tips based on calls and correspondence we have received.

  1. There is no guarantee that you will receive more by selling at a public auction than by accepting the offer of outright purchase by a dealer. Choosing to sell at auction rather than outright sale is a calculated (and hopefully educated) gamble. By offering your material to a broad array of collectors and dealers you hope competition will drive the price up substantially above what you would otherwise be offered. If the item or collection sells for the same amount or just a little more than an outright sale you may actually realize less because you have to pay the auctioneer a fee.
  2. All auctioneers are not equally appropriate to sell all items. Some auctioneers are known for their sales of certain types of material such as United States Postal History or box lots. Consigning a British Commonwealth stamp collection to an auction firm who focuses on United States postal history or a single high value stamp to a firm that specializes in box lots may not be your best choice. Not every collectors checks out every lot in every auction and the interests of the regular customers who will automatically receive catalogs for a firms auctions probably reflect the focus of the auctions. Before selecting a firm ask for a couple of their past catalogs and compare the material offered to what you wish to sell. Is it similar?
  3. Any verbal agreements with an auctioneer should be put in writing. A starting bid or an estimated realization is not a guarantee. An auctioneer may estimate what they think an item or items will bring but they are unlikely to make a guarantee
  4. Ask whether your collection will be sold as a single lot or broken into several lots. Will all items be illustrated? In black and white or color? Will an item be featured on the cover? Do you want to see lot descriptions before they are published? Unless it is determined a stamp has been incorrectly identified or misdescribed an auction firm is generally not going to allow you to withdraw lots after the catalog has been published. Any expectations you have on these questions should become part of your auction agreement.
  5. Will there be a minimum selling price or reserve for your items? What will this be? If you want higher minimum selling prices than the auctioneer thinks appropriate you may have to agree to purchase the lots back and pay a buyer premium to the auction firm.
  6. Agree to a time line with the auctioneer. For what specific sale are the items being consigned? We hear from some members who consign items and are surprised when they are not sold in the firms auction the following month. It takes times to properly describe items and produce and distribute catalogs, and is unlikely your material will be sold sooner than three months after consignment. Also, understand when you will receive payment, and what happens if a purchaser asks for an extension to have an item expertized, and what happens if the item is found to be other than described.

The vast majority of APS members have positive experiences with auction houses. However, selling at auction does not magically turn spacefillers into gems!

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