Many people are familiar with the concept of buying art or furniture at auction, but have you ever considered bidding for jewellery? It’s the perfect way to find rare and unique second-hand or vintage pieces, and you can often snag a bargain in the process.
To the inexperienced, jewellery auctions can feel overwhelming at first. They aren’t as quick or convenient as retail, but the patient buyer – one who’s willing to take the time to look through an eclectic mix of pieces from a variety of eras – will be rewarded with a special piece and great value for money.
I’m a bit of a jewellery-auction addict myself: here are my tips for finding gems and feeling confident at auction.
View item before and/or request a condition report
This may seem obvious, but make sure you view the item you’re considering prior to auction. Online photos can be deceptive. And previewing the piece will help you feel more confident about your decision to buy. Simply holding a piece of jewellery in your hand and feeling its heft can tell you a lot about its quality. If you’re unable to make it into the auction house prior, make sure to at least request a condition report. A written statement of the item's condition will help give you peace of mind.
Check for certificates or ask an expert
When purchasing modern (as opposed to antique) diamonds above 0.5-carats, it’s reasonable to ask to see a diamond certificate. Certified diamonds have been formally assessed by a gemmological body such as the Gemmological Institute of America (GIA) for their colour, cut and clarity grades, and are therefore more valuable than uncertified diamonds. (The jewellery experts that work for the auction house should be more than happy to discuss the diamond grades with you so you can get a grasp on how the system works.) That isn’t to say that uncertified diamonds can’t be great value, but it may be better to have an external expert advise you if you’re making a major purchase (see next point).
Get a second opinion
For many, an engagement ring is one of the most significant purchases they’ll ever make. Buying at auction is an excellent way to get good value for money. (Buying a diamond at auction is almost always going to be better value than buying an equivalent diamond new). But if you need reassurance that you’re buying well, ask an expert for their opinion before you wave that paddle in the auction room. The National Council of Jewellery Valuers can help point you in the right direction, otherwise reach out to the jewellery experts at the auction house for more detailed information. For larger purchases, consider getting an independent opinion. The fee you pay for the service is a small price to pay for the savings you’ll (hopefully) get in the auction room.
Do your research
Check the price of an equivalent item in a retail store, and use this comparison to decide what your maximum bid should be. It might sound obvious, but it’s easy to get carried away in the excitement of an auction when you have your heart set on an item. Another important point: don't forget about the buyer's premium. Whatever the price is when the gavel drops (known as the hammer price), the buyer must pay a fee on top (usually around 22 to 25 per cent of the hammer price) plus GST.
Bid in person
If possible, it’s best to bid in the room for your object of desire. This is a good way to gauge the level of excitement and see if there’ll be many potential buyers bidding against you. Then you may decide to increase or decrease your maximum bid accordingly. Also, it's great fun. Bidding on the phone or online just isn't quite the same as catching the auctioneer's eye and raising your paddle.
Look for potential in the jewels on offer
Many amazing stones get overlooked at auctions because their settings aren’t to buyers’ contemporary tastes. Don't forget, there’s usually a possibility for redesign. If you love a certain stone but hate the design of the ring, factor the cost of a redesign into your budget. Jewellery can be reborn according to the tastes of the buyer. Keep in mind this advice applies more to unbranded and modern items. (Antique jewellery has a wonderful patina and provenance of its own that should be preserved.) If metal is scratched and badly worn, it can often be easily fixed with a jewellery refurbishment, too. One word of warning: not all rings can be resized, so try it on first, and if it's a surprise gift, know the recipient’s ring size.
Reputable auction houses:
First State Auctions