Tripping to Auction

A place where deals and treasures meet.

The standing room-only crowd grows quieter with every bid. Bouncing between two bidders, the auctioneer’s $1,200 becomes $2,500, up to $4,600. “The antique oriental plate is … sold for $5,200.” The resulting buzz from the diverse group of buyers is filled with adrenalin. Only the kids, focused on their iPads, remain unfazed.

This is my first auction and the woman next to me can tell. She whispers, “In all my 25 years at auction, I’ve never seen anything like that!”

I had come for a writing desk. Well, and for the other rumoured deals. As a furniture-phile (the older and quirkier, the better), I’ve trolled most of Edmonton’s antique and vintage furniture shops. Over and over again, I’d heard auction items could be bought for a third of dealer prices.

Ward’s Auctions is set in a squat warehouse building on 118th Avenue and 145th Street. It was home to Arthur Clausen & Sons Auctioneers before Brad Ward bought the business in 2011. A well-respected auctioneer, Arthur Clausen still calls Ward daily to give advice and share tips for potential deals he’s spotted.

When I first approached the building, I felt nervous. I was there for the auction preview (every auction day has corresponding preview times, where interested buyers can inspect items for sale). I couldn’t bid on or buy anything yet, but I still felt anxious. Would people notice I know nothing about Depression-era water glass?

Thankfully, I met the reassuring Margaret Alcock as she sized up a walnut, glass-enclosed bookcase and matching sideboard. “Furniture is an incredible deal at auction,” she confirmed. On auction day, the two pieces she’d eyed sold for half of what you’d pay at a shop.

She gave me two pieces of advice, “Never bid on something you haven’t previewed. And, set yourself a budget, then bring someone to help you keep it.”

Admiring an oak file cabinet that predated the electric typewriter, I asked, “You think it’d fit eight-by-10 paper?” Margaret’s husband wordlessly taught me another lesson as he reached into his pocket: bring a tape measure.

Over the next hour, two of Brad Ward’s kids (this is a family auction business), Elizabeth and Max, helped me piece together the process. First, I registered and received a bidding number and catalogue. Second, they showed me that each item has a lot number corresponding to the catalogue. The auctioneer will call 80 to 100 lots an hour, so you can get a rough idea of what time items will come up for bidding, they told me.

Third, I closely inspected the items I liked and noted the maximum prices I was willing to spend on the pieces. During the auction, I’d be able to bid in person or on-line or by completing an absentee ballot, in which case the clerk bids for you, based on your instructions.

Elizabeth advised, “No one ever starts with the first price the auctioneer offers, though it may be a good evaluation of what an item is worth.”

“Auctioneering is a ‘performance art’,” said Brad. “I like to keep people on their toes, so sometimes I introduce a starting bid based on how much I think it should sell for, and other times I start it off low so that I get lots of bidders right away.” He first got into the auction business in partnership with his mother who sold in the “English Way”- clearly and easily understood – versus the more aggressive “cattle auction” approach. His is a more relaxed calling style. 

On auction day, my friend joins me. An experienced auction buyer, she once bought an oil painting for $85 by an artist she didn’t recognize. Later, she learned it had earlier retailed for $3,000 at a local gallery. Her best deal: $10,000 worth of Birks sterling silver for $1,700. “The best deals at auction are furniture, art, rugs, china and silverware. Oh, and jewellery! People don’t always know the value of these things.”

This day is no different: $90 for a Persian rug, $275 for a six-foot china cabinet, $225 for a roll-top secretary desk.

As anticipated, I get caught up in the experience. A piano comes up for bidding with a retail value of $8,000 – I know this because it is the same one I have at home. The bidding starts at $2,000. No takers. Maybe $1,000? No hands wave their bubble-gum pink bidding numbers. To $500, $400, $300? My arm waves my number. My stomach squeezes and my lungs and brain feel like they’re full of helium. I think: My husband is not going to believe it. Where will I put a second piano, just like the first?

It’s an endorphin high: But achieved without a mile of running or square of chocolate. It’s a high generated by the usual thrill of a deal, but there is something more: the rush from competition and energy from the crowd. Adding fuel to the fire is the unknown “who.” If others in the crowd share your preferences, you will pay more. If you’re alone in your taste and spending priorities, extraordinary deals are to be had.

Another woman saves my marriage and buys the piano for an eighth of its retail price. In the final minutes, for $15 I buy a delicate watercolour of red hollyhocks on a picket fence by Medicine Hat artist Anne Page. As the crowd thins and prices plummet, auctioneer Brad Ward chirps, “Folks, it pays to stay to the end.”

Places to shop

Decade to Decade (7425 72 A St.)

A well-priced furniture consignment shop.

Find (5120 122 St.)

A social-enterprise furniture store that benefits the hard-to-house.

Pieces of the Past Antiques Inc. (6569 Gateway Blvd.)

An antique shop specializing in exquisite pieces from Wales and England: Huge selection.

Plum Home + Design (12407 108 Ave.) 

A small store that offers one-of-a-kind antiques from England and some restored furniture.

Rocky Mountain Antique Mall (7025 Gateway Blvd.) and Old Strathcona Antique Mall (10323 78 Ave.)

Multiple stalls are run by different vendors, selling collectables and larger furniture items.

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