Online Auction Tips From Our Most Successful Bidders

Auctions are a wonderful place to find one-of-a-kind collectibles, antique furniture, artwork and other items that you are passionate about. Not only is it fun to participate in a live auction from the comfort of your home, but it is also safe and convenient at a time when travel is severely restricted. With online auctions, regardless of where the sale takes place, you won’t miss the action.

To help you master online bidding, we gathered vital tips and advice directly from the Invaluable bidder community to help you increase your odds of winning.  

1. Do your homework. 

If you really want to understand the item that you’re about to purchase – and get the fair market price for it – you need to do your homework. 

Start by educating yourself on the collectibles market you’re interested in, says bidder Karin C., and spend time gathering a broad knowledge about the items you’re collecting. “Become your own expert to avoid mistakes, disappointments, and paying too much.” 

Before bidding on an item, Invaluable bidders suggest looking at as many images of it as possible. Don’t hesitate to send the auction house a message requesting more photos, detailed information, and a condition report – houses will typically respond very quickly. 

“Research, research, research! If interested in an item, exhaust all available research information to find out as much as possible about the item’s history, its current value, its auction history, and its potential future value,” says bidder Dan H. 

Our own Price Archive can help you find the value of similar items in advance of a sale, as well as the prices they sold for in the past. 

Watching several auctions online before trying to bid is also helpful to understand how the auction house works, suggests Patrick. Expect to get better the more you participate in auctions – experience is key in avoiding inevitable mistakes. 

Be sure to check how the auction house handles payment and shipping (and understand the buyer’s premium and expected tax costs) to stay within your budget. If you are participating in an auction outside of your country, be sure to confirm that there are no import restrictions for your item, and don’t forget to learn about customs costs.  

2. Set a realistic budget and stick to it. 

When you’re engaged in a live bidding war, it’s too easy to get caught in the heat of the moment. Set a realistic bid limit for live and absentee bids beforehand and don’t go over it. 

“Think of the maximum price you want to pay for the piece, including the premium, and stick with that number,” says Tony. Stay within your budget using our buyer’s premium calculator, which appears on the screen when you’re ready to enter your bid. 

Other bidders have likely researched the items being offered and will be prepared to bid up to the fair market price. While you certainly don’t want to overpay, it also helps to educate yourself on what an item is worth. If it’s incredibly unique and may never come up again, notes Robert D., be sure to plan accordingly. 

“Buy the best you can afford. Quality remains constant long after the thrill of a bargain passes.” – Jeffrey H. 

Of course, winning doesn’t necessarily mean you have to get a particular item, reminds another bidder, Robert M. “Sometimes you win by knowing when to pass.” 

3. Narrow your focus, then bid on what you love. 

Narrow the scope of your collection so you can more easily determine what to purchase and what it’s worth to your collection. 

“Specialize as much as possible. Don’t just collect pottery; collect art pottery from Marajó Island, Brazil, made before 1980,” says Ford R. “Be specific to limit choices or you’ll run out of room and money.” 

Once you’ve honed in on exactly what you want to purchase, stick to what you really love – what you’re most enthusiastic about. 

“Know what an item is worth and what it is worth to you,” says Michael C. “If it is important to your collection, it may be worth more to you than to another bidder,” which can further increase your chances for success. 

It’s also important not to buy primarily for investment value, as the market fluctuates all the time. Instead, buy a piece because you love it, adds bidder Hui-Jui C. 

To ensure that you don’t miss out on the right sales or items, set up email and other notifications for your account. Invaluable provides email notifications for any sellers, keywords, artists, or categories you choose to follow. You can also enable mobile or desktop notifications to receive a heads up when you’re outbid, when your item comes up in auction, or when your registration status changes.  

4. Participate live whenever possible. 

When participating in an online auction, your odds of winning are increased by 20 percent if you bid live, in real-time, versus leaving an absentee bid and hoping for the best. 

“Watching live is far more exciting than placing an absentee bid, and you have a far better chance of winning the lot you are interested in,” says Linda K. 

There are at least several last-second bids for each lot in most auctions, so being present will prevent you from missing the action (and your item!). If you’re away from your computer, just hop on with your mobile app. Better yet, many auctions on Invaluable have audio and visual capabilities so that you can enjoy the excitement as if you were right there in the saleroom. 

Participating in a live auction can also be a great way to get a deal. Ingrid C. recommends, “If you love something but think it will be out of your price range, it is often worth watching the auction anyway. Sometimes things sell for less than the auctioneer’s estimate.” 

If you can’t participate live online when the auction is in progress, make sure you set your bid limit high enough. Bidder D.G. suggests, “Don’t just bid the minimum required – put down the maximum bid that is within your budget” for increased chances of winning. You also don’t need to tune in for the entire sale. Katerina recommends taking advantage of your app notifications so that you can receive an alert when the lot your bid on (or favorited) is coming up next.  

5. Bid quickly, with confidence (and patience). 

Auctions are fast-paced and the lot you’re interested in could sell before you have time to realize it. If there’s something you have your heart set on, aim to bid quickly and without hesitation. 

“Don’t be shy. An auction – online or live – can seem like an intimidating affair, but it’s really quite smooth and easily navigated using the same common-sense criteria that we employ when making any purchase.” – John C. 

 Alex also warns bidders not to wait for fair warnings to appear but to instead “make sure your bids are quick, firm, and full of confidence.” Don’t overthink it and go with your gut.  

Matt recommends jumping in and bidding at the beginning of the auction. “Maybe no one will want to go after that first bid. I’ve gotten some great deals that way.” Preparing ahead of time will help you to maintain the confidence needed to win those items you love. 

6. Look outside your locale. 

If your collection centers on pieces from a particular locale, you may want to consider auctions taking place in other areas that may offer what you’re looking for. Demand may be lower outside of your local area, so you have better chances of winning. 

“Concentrate on buying items outside of the locality where they are likely to incite most interest. For example, don’t limit buying California art to California or west coast houses,” advises Gilman P. 

Tom B. notes that New England-themed artwork is often offered in Florida and California. That improves the likelihood of purchasing it at a lower price than what you might find when bidding on New England art locally. 

7. Have fun! 

Finally, remember that participating in auctions is an enjoyable experience. Bidders always talk about the excitement of bidding live online and competing to win an item against other bidders. 

Stay positive and don’t be nervous, says bidder Rodney T. “Get in and give it a go – it’s fun!”