INSIGHTS: How to Participate in Auctions of Agatha Christie collectibles.
Updated: Nov 15, 2021
Every month numerous Agatha Christie related items appear at auctions around the world. Many people immediately think of high priced items at firms such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s when auction houses are mentioned, but there are thousands of small auction houses around the world that deal in more mainstream and affordable items. With the improvement in online catalogues and virtual bidding, the auction world offers tremendous potential for collectors of Christie items to acquire unique and collectible items often at prices well below retail. However, many collectors, both novice and experienced avoid them because of perceived complexities. Our hope is that this article will help demystify this world and provide some insights into how to effectively participate in it.
But first, let’s review some Christie items currently available at auction in the next 30 days.
18 November 2021: Wilson55 (Peter Wilson Fine Art): Nantwich, Cheshire, UK.
Auction: “20th Century Art & Design”. Buyer’s premium 22%.
Lot 57: A first edition of Sparkling Cyanide, Collins, The Crime Club, London (1945), in correctly priced jacket. Estimate £100-200.
Lot 74: A collection of film memorabilia, mostly related to the 1978 film ‘Death on the Nile’ including a script belonging to an Assistant Director, scene sheets and location photos, plus a rehearsal sheet for the 1974 film ‘Murder on the Orient Express’. Estimate £200-400.
18 November 2021: Weiss Auctions: Lynbrook, New York, USA.
Auction: “Rare Books" incl items from the Otto Penzler Collection. Buyer’s premium 20%.
Lot 172: A first edition of 4:50 From Paddington, Collins, The Crime Club, London (1957). Near fine in jacket. From the Otto Penzler collection. Estimate: $60-90.
Lot 173: A first edition of The Pale Horse, Collins, The Crime Club, London (1961). Near fine in jacket. From the Otto Penzler collection. Estimate: $60-90.
24 November 2021: Dreweatts 1759: Newbury, Berkshire, UK.
Auction: “Fine Jewellery and Pens”. Buyer’s premium 25%.
Lot 685: An Agatha Christie Montblanc Writer’s Edition, No. 25479/30000 (c.1993). Estimate £500-700.
25 November 2021: Forum Auctions: London, UK.
Auction: “Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper”. Buyer’s premium 25%.
Lot 408: A set of two Agatha Christie first editions, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Collins (1926), and The Mystery of the Blue Train, Collins (1928). Both rebound by Temple Bindery in blue Morocco leather. Estimate £400-600.
2 December 2021: International Autograph Auctions: Malaga, Spain.
Auction: “Autographs, Letters & Manuscripts”. Buyer’s premium 22.5%.
Lot 810: A typed letter signed (TLS), dated 30 June 1971, signed ‘Agatha Christie’. Comes with envelope. Estimate €400-600.
Lot 11: A TLS, dated 18 September 1967, signed ‘Agatha Christie Mallowan’. Estimate €600-800 (only page 2 shown below).
How to Bid:
If you are interested in an item at auction, you need to register first. On the auction firm’s website you will find a place to register. Some auction firms require you to register for each auction, others allow you to register at the firm level. In most cases a proof of identity will need to be uploaded so it is a best practice to keep a jpeg image of your passport or a national identity card (such as a driver’s license) easily accessible. You will also often have to provide a valid credit card in advance. However, read the Terms & Conditions to determine if you will have to arrange electronic payment. The credit card may solely be a safety back up for the auction house. Some firms will also require a proof of address, such as a tax or utility bill. All of these requests are normal and have helped the auction industry minimize its risks. These risks have included shell bidders (those who solely try to bid up an item), non-paying bidders and money launderers.
Once you are registered you will then need to decide whether to bid in advance (an absentee bidder) or participate live. Our advice is that new entrants to the auction world should assess how much they are willing to pay (including buyer’s premiums and taxes – both discussed below) and place an absentee bid up to this amount. Live auction participation can lead to overpaying if you get caught up in the heat of the moment. However, if you have a finite budget but have multiple items you are interested in, then live bidding may be your only option. By knowing if you secured an item or didn’t, you could then decide if you bid on another item. If you place absentee bids on many items at once, you could end up winning all of them and spending more than you wanted.
Bidding Terms & Concepts to Know:
Description: Every auction house will write a brief description. The more valuable an item the more detailed it should be. For a high priced item, there may be references to provenance or some insight as to where the item came from. The generic terms of 'From the collection of a gentleman / lady' basically mean from a collector, but no provenance whatsoever. If it is a signed item, we suggest reading our recent article on signatures (click here).
Condition Report: Many auction listings will have a modest description and maybe only one photograph. For collectors of books, this is inadequate to make an informed decision. You likely want to see the dust jacket in full, know if it price clipped, confirm the copyright page notations etc. To obtain this information, plan in advance and submit a ‘condition request’ report. This request may take several days to obtain as a member of the auction house will visually inspect the item and answer your questions or provide more details. There is a general acceptable etiquette here that you should only request condition reports to validate something you must know before you bid, but that you intend to bid. Don’t submit numerous requests solely out of curiosity. Auction staff are busy people.
Buyer’s Premium: This percentage is added onto the hammer price. Thus if an item sells for £100 under the hammer and the premium is 25%, your initial purchase price is £125. The premium secured from the buyer (and a similar amount usually from the seller) is how the auction house pays its bills.
Plus One: When you place an absentee bid, you will generally be given the option to have a ‘plus one’ or similar to your bid amount. If the auction increment is £10, and you place your maximum bid as £100 ‘plus one’, then if the sequence of the bidding meant that someone else placed the £100 bid (i.e. your last bid was £90), then the auctioneer will go ‘plus one’ for you, up to £110. It is designed to counter the effect of either a tie or bid sequencing that didn’t favour you.
Taxes / VAT / Sales Tax: Depending on the location of the auction house, taxes may also be applied to the item. Rules vary drastically around the world so be certain to read the description on the auction page around terms and costs. Another layer of complexity could also be where the buyer’s residency is, and where the item will be shipped to. For example, an auction house is Spain will add VAT (value added tax) to an EU resident, but will waive it for a non-EU buyer. However, if that non-EU buyer chooses to ship the item to a local family member or pick it up in person, the tax will be added regardless of the buyer’s domicile. Understanding these tax rules is important, as often shipping out of region will be cheaper than paying the tax and collecting the item in person. If the VAT is 20%, and the buyer’s premium was 25%, then that £100 purchase will now cost £100 x 1.25 x 1.2 = £150.
Shipping: Most auction houses will clearly stipulate on their website in they have an in-house shipping department or have contracted a third-party firm. For most Christie collectors shipping will be reasonable, but for larger items such as paintings or furniture, costs could be very high. You can usually obtain an estimate in advance if you are concerned by contacting the auction firm. Expect shipping costs to include a handling fee also, so it will add more than you might imagine.
After the Sale:
If you are the successful bidder and did not attend in-person, don’t be impatient. Re-read their terms and conditions before contacting the auction house as most answers will be there. Many will state that you will receive an invoice within 3-7 days. They will clarify if payment can be made by card or needs to be done by bank transfer. Some will state you should contact them by email if you know you will require shipping while others will refer you to a contracted shipper to obtain a shipping quote. Once you have an invoice, pay it promptly if the amount was not already debited to your card on file. It is not uncommon for it to take 2-4 weeks to receive an item bought at auction.
Monitoring Upcoming Auctions:
Our twitter account, @collectchristie, will frequently post 'Auction Alerts' when there are items that we think may interest our followers. So we encourage you to follow us there. For direct tracking, there are certain auction houses that will more frequently deal in Christie related items, especially books. These include Forum Auctions in the UK, and Heritage Auctions in the US. However, Christie items show up everywhere so the use of auction sites that aggregate data from many firms are worth knowing about. Two of the largest aggregators are The Saleroom and Live Auctioneers. Many of these aggregators allow you to register with them, and then bid through them so that you don’t need to register directly with the underlying auction house. However, often the buyer’s premium will be inflated to help cover the costs of the aggregator. If you rarely participate in auctions this may be acceptable to you. For those who become more active in the auction world you should get used to working directly with the actual auction house.
We hope this has provided a little more insight into the world of auctions. Comments are most welcome.