Sunday 22 September 2019

Do online bidders net a better deal?

Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column

Bidding on the internet
Bidding on the internet
A traditional auction at Christie's New York last November for the 1969 painting by Francis Bacon, 'Three Studies of Lucien Freud', the Irish artist sold for US$142m, a record for the most expensive artwork ever sold
Ruby and diamond flamingo brooch (€1,300 to €1,500)
A ruby and diamond brooch in the shape of a flower (est. €4,500 to €6,500)

Eleanor Flegg

'When I was living in New York I bought a piece of ceramic sculpture at an online auction," says Seamus Moran, art collector. "It cost me a couple of hundred dollars. I was delighted - until it arrived. Then I discovered that it was only four inches high. I thought it would be 40 inches high! I still feel a bit stupid for paying so much money for such a tiny object."

The first lesson in online bidding is to read the lot descriptions carefully.

A few years ago, online bidding was a novelty. Now it's become the norm. One by one, the larger Irish auction houses have signed up to sites like Invaluable and The Saleroom, which allow bidders to participate in their auctions via the internet.

There are two main types of auction: timed auctions that take place entirely online within a set timeframe; and live auctions conducted in real time in front of an audience. Some bidders will attend the auction in person, some will participate on the phone, and others will place their bids online.

A traditional auction at Christie's New York last November for the 1969 painting by Francis Bacon, 'Three Studies of Lucien Freud', the Irish artist sold for US$142m, a record for the most expensive artwork ever sold
A traditional auction at Christie's New York last November for the 1969 painting by Francis Bacon, 'Three Studies of Lucien Freud', the Irish artist sold for US$142m, a record for the most expensive artwork ever sold

Moran still bids online, but enjoys the social side of going to auctions. "I find it interesting to watch the people - the territorial dealers who come up from the country in their vans and the crazy little old ladies.

And I like to get to know the people that are interested in the same things that I am. I've made a few friends that way."

One of these is Paul Tuthill, an art dealer who buys at auction for his clients and also sells at the Dublin Flea Market. "Personally I prefer the live auction experience. There's nothing like buzz in the room and you can see who is bidding against you. There's something lost if you're bidding against a computer."

With auction fever, he explains, there's an element of machismo involved. "There's a psychological pressure. People are afraid to back down."

That said, he also describes the experience of a pair of friends he knows of who attended an auction together. They both wanted the same object but neither wanted to bid against the other. So they sat there, looking innocent, while secretly placing their online bids, via the smart phones in their pockets. "Online bidding has completely changed the dynamic of the auction scene," he says. "The regulars are cursing it because it's harder to find a bargain but the advantage is that you don't have to look so hard to find what you want." Once, dealers like Tuthill had to scour regional auctions across the country. Now, they can use a search engine.

Tuthill recommends that you check the delivery arrangements that the auction house has in place before you place your online bid. Some expect you to collect your purchase within a timeframe; others are happy to arrange to transport, but this can be expensive.

Online bidders should also make sure that their internet connection is reliable. "If you're on the Dart and it goes through a tunnel at the wrong moment you could lose your chance!"

"We were the first Irish auction house to introduce online bidding," says Michael Sheppard of Sheppard's. "We started doing it about eight years ago." Their most recent auction took place this June at Coolattin House, Co Wicklow. "We had bidders from 40 countries, including Russia, the Philippines, China, and Egypt - not just the places that you'd expect."

Where people are bidding on objects unseen, decent photographs and accurate descriptions are essential. This has led to better cataloguing in Irish auction houses.

"People can ask for a condition report in advance of the auction and that's a contractual thing," Sheppard explains. "If it's not accurate, the contract is null and void."

In the Coolattin House sale, a pair of Dublin Edwardian period mahogany and hide upholstered wing back armchairs (est. €8,000 to €12,000) sold for €14,000 (pictured below left). The condition report described the chairs as "structurally sound; no apparent repairs or additions. The hide upholstery is in good condition, with minor signs of wear and age."

For the auctioneer, online bidding has some advantages. "There were several moments during the auction when I could just sit back and watch the bidding go from €200 to €2,000 in minutes. The head-to-head was happening on the internet and the audience were just gobsmacked looking at that machine!"

The sleeper in the sale was a seventeenth-century tapestry (est. €6,000 to €9,000), which sold for €26,500. "That went up in rapid spurts," says Sheppard. "There were two internet bidders and a telephone bidder."

In these moments the auctioneer can take a back seat. "It's wonderful," he says. "You can go and have a coffee while the whole thing is going on."

Despite the changes in the way that auctions are conducted, Sheppard reports that what people want has remained the same. "People still want 18-Century items, items with provenance, and Irish items," he says. A pair of 18th-Century bronze cannons (est. €6,000 to €8,000) in the Coolattin House sale ticked all three boxes, selling for €17,000.

"Online bidding is not the definitive way of buying at auction," Sheppard concludes. "A lot of people participate by phone. Twenty years ago we didn't even have that. You had to be in the room."

See,, and The Dublin Flea Market takes place on the last Sunday of every month. See

In the Salerooms


There’s a fine selection of brooches coming up for auction at O’Reilly’s Auction Rooms, Francis Street, next Wednesday, August 30, from 10am to 12.30pm. The brooches may come in whimsical forms, but many of them are serious pieces of jewellery incorporating serious rocks.

A modern ruby and diamond brooch in the shape of a flower (est. €4,500 to €6,500), pictured above, is set with pear-shaped untreated Burmese rubies; while an early 20th-Century diamond floral spray bar brooch (est. €3,500 to €4,500) is set with old European brilliant cut diamonds.

Others are set to sell for slightly more affordable prices, including a ruby, sapphire and diamond butterfly brooch (€1,400 to €1,500), and an eye-catching ruby and diamond flamingo brooch (€1,300 to €1,500), pictured below.

Ruby and diamond flamingo brooch (€1,300 to €1,500)

Flamingos are bang on trend this year and butterflies never really go out of style.

Other, non-figurative, brooches in the sale include a simple and massively wearable diamond bow brooch (€1,500 to €2,000). Fore more, see


If you’re interested in the glamorous side of the antiques business, there’ll be plenty to entertain you at the 52nd Irish Antique Dealers Fair, which runs in the RDS Main Hall from Friday, September 22 to Sunday, September 24.

“We will have a mixture of contemporary artists’ costumes such as the headpiece Beyonce wore in the video for Lemonade, Lady Gaga’s graffiti corset and signed guitars from some of the music world’s top icons such as Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page,” says Laurence Carpenter of Pop Icons, a Dublin-based company that deals mostly in London, New York and Los Angeles.

But don’t expect pocket-money prices. “Music memorabilia can fetch up to six figures,” Carpenter explains.

For Jackie Collins’ fans, the antique dealer Niall Mullen will bring a bronze sculpture (€3,850) by Josef Lorenzl, purchased from the author’s estate sale at her home in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles.

The lecture programme will include a talk by the ever-popular Julian Radcliffe of the Art Loss Register who will talk on issues of provenance, value, theft, forgery and fakes.

Admission to the fair is €10. For further details, see


There’s nothing like a good snoop around somebody else’s house, and Lota: The Estate of the Late Patricia Moore promises just that.

Potential highlights include a George III period statuary white marble chimneypiece (est. €8,000 to €12,000) and a Cork Regency period mahogany serving table (€5,000 to €7,000), but the sale also has a good number of items with estimates less than €100. Some of these may well go for a song.

Viewing takes place from August 26 to 28 at Lota, Brighton Road, Foxrock, Dublin 18, from 10am to 5pm.

Admission is by catalogue only and costs €10 (admits two adults). The sale itself takes place at Sheppard’s Auction Rooms, Durrow, Co Laois, on Tuesday, August 29 from 10.30am to 12.30pm (Lots 1-200) and from 2pm to 5.30pm (lots 201-496). For full details, see

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