The Cost of Attending My First Auction

I hadn’t intended to bid so much.

Photo credit: BurnAway, CC BY 2.0.

My dining set broke a week after I moved into a new apartment. The chairs slumped and creaked alarmingly with any weight. The table swung loosely side to side. I applied liberal amounts of wood glue: nope. Reinforced the braces with nails: nope. Duct-taped over a second attempt at nails: nope.

To counter the stress of never being able to confidently sit in my home, I decided that I’d get a new dining set—and this time, it wouldn’t be a Craigslist buy. A similarly thrifty and design-obsessed friend recommended looking at furniture auctions, so I started scanning regional auction houses for a dining set that’d be my forever set — surely $1,000 would cover it? That unresearched, impulsive figure quickly became The Budget: $1,000 for a table with four chairs.

I went to a reputable auction in a leaf-peeping state. Driving there, singing along to the radio, I fantasized about what $1,000 would net me. Something mid-century, minimal design? Something I could polish, not spray down with Lysol! Something that could be a centerpiece—and, since I wasn’t getting something mass-produced, something with an easily imagined backstory.

I arrived auction day to an already-seated group of design professionals (the type who text their clients “454 is coming up in three”) as well as randoms, New England fancy-types that I couldn’t place, people who brought fuzzy lapdogs with them and petted them rhythmically the entire time, and stereotypical middle-aged couples sniping at each other when one of them bought something the other didn’t like (“of all the coffee tables in the world, you decided to win that one?”).

There was also an auctioneer who kept up a breakneck pace for the five-plus hours that I was there (“chest of drawers, well-oiled teak and in great condition, every single drawer slides beautifully, and folks, this is the truly rare gem that tips it over into amazing, the original key for the lock comes with!”).

I walked all around the dining sets for sale, pushing them, prodding them, sitting at them, running my hands over the wood and flipping myself half over to look at the undersides, lifting chairs up dramatically by every leg and arm to test for potential weakness. I wanted a perfect set. As it turns out, I wanted one specific set: rosewood with the original ‘70s pink upholstery so well preserved that I could imagine the first owner picking this model out from the showroom. I wanted it so much that I decided it was mine before the bidding even began.

Here’s how your first auction will go. You plop down your driver’s license and a major credit card to get your bidder number and paddle. They keep photocopies of your license and card on file, so there’s no “oops, let me take it back”s. You fall in love with a desirable object. You are no longer seeking a bargain. You are seeking ownership. You walk back into the fray, waiting for them to carry your beloved up to the stage. When you see your darling about to enter the spotlight, you grip your paddle harder and start flexing your arm. When the auctioneer starts rattling through the description, your heart says, “yes, yes” and your arm shoots up. But then someone else’s arm shoots up. NUH-UH BUDDY, IT’S MINE. Your arm understands before your brain does that the mere act of raising your limb can get you your baby, and your budget of $1,000 and plans for short-term austerity are forgotten, and your arm gets you a winning $2,000 plus a 25 percent auction house fee price for an incredible vintage dining room set that you still can’t, two years later, believe you own and use as part of your normal eating experience.

I went into my first auction asking myself why I didn’t go to auctions every weekend. The people watching! The thrill of the bids shooting sky high! Getting to examine so many objects and choose the perfect one for me! I left my first auction knowing it would be a long time before I would be ready to trust myself at another one.

What I ended up paying for my dining set is (very) probably more than the set is technically worth, but I’d rather not ever quantify exactly how much I assume I overpaid. Whatever that amount is, that’s how much it cost to learn that I need an auction buzzkill friend with me, someone who will immediately shut me down and stop my hand and remind me that what I love most of all is a bargain. Every time I look at my beautiful dining set—which I love—I am also reminded that a fool and her money are easily parted.

JMP is still, two years on, in the early stages of settling in to her new apartment.

This story is part of The Billfold’s Financial Fails series.

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