One man peers intently at the hinges of a table, his flashlight shining into the crevice. Another pokes gently at the back of a painting, examining it so closely his nose almost touches the canvas. A woman clinks one china plate against another as she turns it over.
Tables are tipped, chairs are rocked, drawers pulled out - all in the subdued quiet of concentration.
This careful rummaging is the scene of a live auction preview. It offers the thrill of the hunt, two "hunters" acknowledge, and the serendipity of discovering what you never knew you were looking for.
It's also what the roaring online auction world - eBay and its smaller competitors - can't match: the chance to handle the merchandise. And paradoxically, rather than cannibalize the live auction market, online sites have actually fed it, by nudging people toward an idea that might formerly have seemed forbidding or only for the well-heeled.
The advent of eBay 10 years ago, along with the PBS "Antiques Roadshow," has sparked more public curiosity about the auction world.
"EBay ... has attracted, educated, and indoctrinated an entirely new group of consumers who weren't participating in auctions because they didn't know how," a special report by the National Auctioneers Association (NAA) concluded last July.
Live auctions in the United States hit a new record of $217 billion in sales last year, according to NAA figures. The bulk of that was for automobiles (42 percent) and farm equipment, farm real estate, and livestock (28 percent). But the skinny 6 percent for art, antiques, and collectibles is still the most eye-catching slice.
Part of the new interest is generated by auction houses themselves, which have opened their doors wider to beginners. Once geared toward dealers and savvy collectors, they have embraced a broader clientele, says Karen Keane, CEO of Skinner Inc., the fourth-largest auction house in the US. Part of that push is simple economics - there's not enough profit in selling only wholesale, Ms. Keane says. To attract new buyers, Skinner holds public events such as lectures, seminars, and benefit auctions. Last year was a record in sales for the auction house, she says.
Some of that growth is a fallout of the stock market's wobbles. People are looking to tangibles - something concrete - for investments, Keane says. They're trying to find havens. Skinner's biggest jewelry sale was during the invasion of Iraq, she says. "Go figure."
Auction houses' relationship with the online world is more symbiotic than simply educating the public. Skinner, for instance, advertises its auctions on eBay and links live to the site when an auction is in session - complete with real-time price ticks and feedback ratings.
It's an educational process, Keane says of its eBay bidders, who can e-mail questions to Skinner about lots in the preview. Sometimes you get, "How do you know it's old?" she says. "This is not a pig-in-a-poke auction."
Sotheby's and Christie's, the most glamorous tip of the auction market, both made forays into Internet auctions in the late 1990s and lost money. It was a rough ride adjusting to the freewheeling online world, and both withdrew before later relaunching in a more subdued manner. The reason, Keane suggests, is few buyers will bid on high-end items without seeing them firsthand. "It's not like selling tube socks on eBay."
EBay tried to expand into the fine arts market by buying the traditional auction house of Butterfield & Butterfield in 1999, but within three years had off-loaded it after losing money and running into the same culture clash. As Kevin Pursglove, an eBay spokesman, said at the time, "Perhaps we had not entirely gauged how much of a change in behavior would be required to make customers comfortable with purchasing high-end art and collectibles online."
Despite that stumble, most established auction houses do maintain an online presence, as much for established customers as to attract new ones. What online access provides is a chance to preview items and then decide whether to attend the auction in person - a role that auction catalogs play, too. Or the reverse, to attend the live preview and bid online later. What didn't work so well was both previewing and bidding online, at least for high-end items.
Ultimately, an Internet presence can expand the potential audience by millions. And while not dependent on that audience, the inclusiveness has helped auction houses win converts.
Live auctions go back to the days of the ancient Greeks, when farm produce was hauled into town and put up for sale. Today, farm auctions are still serious business in the US. Art and collectible auctions, however, are geared more toward entertainment.
"We're in the unfortunate situation of selling things to people they really don't need," says Keane.
But that doesn't seem to lessen the enjoyment of buyers. And may even heighten it.
Retiree Jerry Sullivan, who came with his wife to the Skinner "discovery" auction preview in Bolton, Mass., in June, openly acknowledges they don't need anything. They have bought more paintings than they have walls to hang them on, he says. So they rotate the pictures like a museum, stacking them up when they're not on display. "My wife says you can always find a place for something new," he says with a smile.
Entertainment aside, there are some deals to be had, which is why dealers themselves are often the ones doing the closest inspections at the preview. Discovery auctions, in particular, offer an Aladdin's cave of furniture, china, art, and curiosities.
At the Skinner auction, estimates range from as low as $25 to as high as $2,000. And whatever the final bid, you have to add 15 to 20 percent sales commission - the auction house's cut - plus tax.
While estimates are usually conservative, some items never even make it into the lower range. A Georgian mahogany tilt-top tea table, estimated at $1,000 to $1,500, sold for $705. A watercolor by Arvid Nyholm, estimated at $1,200 to $1,800, went for $940. A Chippendale-style marble-top coffee table with an estimate of $200 to $250, sold for $94 - less than you'd pay at most furniture stores.
The bidding is fast and low-key. No runners rush onto the stage with furniture and rugs. What you get is a digital picture on a large screen and the description in the catalog. There's no sales spiel, no talking up the item. It's all business. And with 500 lots to sell, Kerry Shrives, the auctioneer, screamed along at almost two a minute.
People spend much more at live auctions than online, according to NAA, which may explain the thin crowd but ample bids. "It's more exciting to bid at auction," says Carol, a retiree from Sterling, Mass., browsing the preview with her husband. "But it's more under control if you don't come."
The first lot up for the evening - two Edward F. Caldwell & Co. eight-day clocks estimated at $25 to $35 - bear her theory out. Fast bids from a man at the back and another near the front quickly push the price up into the hundreds, finally topping off at $900.
It's the thrill of the chase, Keane says.
If you've never been to an auction before, experts recommend that you take certain steps. First, find an auction that fits your budget and interests. They come in all shapes and sizes - from local estate sales listed in the classified ads to high-end houses with glossy catalogs.
Catalogs can be ordered in advance. They contain photos, descriptions, and estimated values. Items also can often be viewed online free of charge. But beware of subtle wording such as "in the style of" or "similar to." It may be a chair only "in the style" of Chippendale - and not such a bargain after all.
In addition, most auctions have a preview, which is a great chance to examine items and decide what you want to bid on. It's worth taking a hard look, because if you end up making the final bid, there's no turning back should you later find your purchase is chipped or cracked. Most things are sold "as is."
Some experts recommend that first-timers buy nothing and simply become familiar with how the bidding works and the auctioneer's style. But if you choose to participate, you will need to register in advance and provide ID. In return you'll receive a paddle or large number printed on a card, which identifies you to the auctioneer.
Be sure to set yourself a price limit and stick to it. Bidding tends to get the competitive juices flowing, even if the item isn't worth the chase. And don't forget that a 15 to 20 percent commission, plus tax, is slapped on top of the winning price.