The Lure of the Large Vintage Cast Iron Auction, and 10 Handy-Dandy Tips!
It’s easy to become overwhelmed very quickly when you arrive at a large in-person cast iron auction. Yards and yards, tables and tables, of all of that gorgeous iron! And many people who are just as determined as you are to snag an excellent piece at an excellent price. Now I’m not talking about an auction that just happens to have a few odds and ends of cast iron; I’m talking about a big collection that is being auctioned off. I’ve surmised that this seems to be the case when a person or family decides that the collecting days have stopped. Another large auction is held at the Griswold & Cast Iron Cookware Association (GCICA) at its annual convention. There, you have the chance to see many serious enthusiasts really get down to business to snag some highly collectible pieces.
The first large auction I attended in person was fantastic – many bids, many pieces, many people, two auctioneers working in two different areas at the same time. It was at a farm. Several hundred pieces of iron, in addition to all sorts of other things. I didn’t know a soul, and I didn’t really know much about auctions; I had only bid at online auctions. There was no preview of pieces; the auctioneers just got right to work. I got caught up in the excitement and ended up buying 60+ horribly crusty rusty old cast iron pans that needed an enormous amount of refurbishing. I don’t recall what I paid, but I do recall that there were only two of us really intent on the iron pieces. We basically took turns bidding each other up. At the end of the auction the other bidder said to me, “there are no friends at auctions.”
While that purchase helped me to learn how to restore vintage and antique cast iron cookware, it was a months-long arduous process. Some of the pieces didn’t amount to much once they had been cleaned – flaws had been buried under layers of crud. I learned that I should factor in the time it would take for me to clean a piece when I was determining what to bid.
Next, I “attended” a large live cast iron auction, online via Proxibid. This meant that I was able to see the auction on my computer as it was taking place, and I could place “live” bids remotely. I purchased more than I intended; I felt the prices were good and I wanted to take advantage of that. At the end of the auction, I paid the invoice and then waited to find out the shipping cost – the pieces were going to be retrieved by UPS and packaged by them and delivered by them. Oh my goodness. It was going to cost hundreds of dollars to ship the pieces. I asked the auctioneer to hold the pieces a short time, and when a friend was driving near where the pieces were stored, he kindly picked them up for me.
I resolved that if I was going to bid online again at a large live auction, I would be sure to factor in the high shipping costs when deciding what to bid. The other issue, of course, is that you can’t preview the pieces; you are relying on photos and video and what the auctioneer says. Sometimes the auctioneer knows about vintage cast iron and sometimes the auctioneer does not. There is no substitute for you previewing the piece you intend to bid on.
The next time I attended a large cast iron auction, I rented a car and drove to the auction house about 11 hours from my home. Again, I didn’t know a soul. This time, however, I was more savvy about what I was looking for. I was selling a bit more, and had established a presence with my e-commerce business. I knew my customer base and what I could easily sell. There were not nearly the number of vintage cast iron sellers then that there are now, so there was less competition at the auction. The crowd appeared to be a handful or so of sellers, and many collectors. And then, of course, there were people who just wanted a piece or two for their kitchen. I remember that I was seated behind Harold Henry – who I didn’t then know – and he was was bidding on and winning a lot of iron. The auctioneer called Harold by name. I could see that if Harold really wanted a piece, he was going to get it.
At this auction, the pieces were mainly clean, so I knew that they would require less work on my part (I still would always strip and re-season before selling, however). As they were clean and would take less of my time, I was willing to pay a higher price. I don’t know how many pieces I bought, but I am sure I bought more than enough.
At the end of the “official” auction – which also had online bidders via Proxibid – those of us who were left gathered around a few tables where the auctioneer had placed a number of pieces that he considered to be less than perfect for one reason or another. We all looked at the pieces on the tables, and then the bidding began. The winning bidder would have the opportunity to pick up as many pieces as they wanted for that winning price – i.e. if the high bid was $20, you could take as many pieces as you wanted for $20 each (e.g. 5 skillets for $100). I remember stopping my high bid at $25, and someone overbidding me for less than $30. That person snagged all of the decent Griswold large block logo skillets. I was kicking myself that I didn’t go to $30. This was back in the day where you could get a nice and clean number 8 Griswold large block logo with heat ring for $20 – $25. Hard to imagine now, I know.
I remember having the high bid at one point. I grabbed some breakfast skillets. Randy Young, a fellow GCICA member, was very kind to me and helped me pick out some pieces that I had overlooked. That’s the thing about the cast iron community – people look out for you. Randy told me that Harold had offered to let me come by his farm and look at his collection on my way home. I hadn’t even met Harold yet, and I thought it was just the nicest thing that he had invited me to his home to see his collection.
On another occasion, Linda and I flew out to a smaller cast iron auction just to bid on some of the higher-valued pieces. Another seller who lived near the auction location was there and asked why I had come all that way for such a relatively small auction. I came because I knew that the person wasn’t selling his collection because he wanted to; he needed cash for a family situation. I wanted to help to support him. Randy did too, and he also made the trip by plane, making several connections to get there.
I have been to many large cast iron auctions in person, all around the country. They are always fun, and you have a chance to meet many other cast iron enthusiasts. You often see faces you’ve seen before, but there are usually some who are new to cast iron and they are so excited! Sometimes people get caught up in the excitement and buy much more than they intended, or pieces they didn’t even know before bidding started that they needed or wanted. I’ve been there; I know how that goes.
Here are some tips to help you out when you attend a large vintage cast iron auction:
- What expenses will you incur in addition to a winning bid price? At some auctions, the auction house charges a “buyer’s premium” on items that you purchase. I have seen buyer’s premiums of 10 – 15%. That amount will be added to your winning bid. For example, if you win with a price of $100 and the buyer’s premium is 10%, you will pay $110. And if you do not have a sales tax exemption, you may also be paying tax on the piece. When you first get to the auction, there will be an area where people are taking down your information – typically photocopying your driver’s license. Some auction houses will ask for a credit card number up front; some won’t. And if you intend to pay by credit card, some auction houses will take an additional percentage of your purchase because they have to pay a percentage to the credit card company when a credit card is used for purchase. I usually brought a checkbook with me just in case. Also consider whether you will be hauling your winnings home with you or will they have to be shipped? Shipping expenses can get into the hundreds of dollars, and you won’t have a precise amount given to you – you just have to pay what e.g. UPS charges to pack and ship. Know all of these things before you start bidding – you want to know the actual price you are paying; not just the successful bid price. Something that you consider to have been purchased at a good price might turn out not to have been.
- Where do you want to sit? Harold Henry usually sits in the front. He will sometimes look around to see who is bidding against him, but I think he really doesn’t care much; if he sets out to get a piece, he will. Russ Howser is usually near the front. Eric and Darlene McAllister usually sit in the back, as does Vincent Warren, though sometimes Vincent stands and sometimes he sits. Brenda Bernstein and Doyle Pregler usually sit toward the back but not in the back. Chris Kendall can usually be seen lurking around the back, or darting around taking photos. I don’t think Chris sits much. I used to sit in the back so I could see who was bidding on what, but that stopped when Sonny McCarter – who was helping run this particular auction in part by carrying pieces back to the winning bidders – pointed out that given the number of pieces I was buying, it would have been considerate of me to sit in a more accessible place rather than make him walk back and forth over and over again carrying heavy iron to me that I had won. It’s a strategic dance, and people have their favorite spots. Sometimes people even “reserve” a spot by putting a piece of paper on a chair with their name on it. Since Sonny chided me, however, if I plan to bid much I usually am somewhere in the middle on the right side, on an aisle. If Accomplice Linda is with me, we often sit a seat apart so that there is more room to place the iron we have purchased.
- Do not bid first. Once you have provided your information to the people who collected your information, you will be handed a “paddle.” The paddle is often a paint stir stick with a piece of cardboard attached on which a number is written. That number is how you will be identified by the auctioneer upon winning a piece, so that the folks keeping track of what you purchased and how much the piece sold for will know to associate the bid with you and your number.
When the bidding starts, the auctioneer will begin with a number that the auctioneer hopes will result in a starting bid, e.g. $50. If no one bids at $50, the auctioneer will drop the price in hopes that someone will bid on the lower amount. Or sometimes, a person in the audience will yell out a price they are willing to pay – this can happen when the piece is particularly desirable and the auctioneer is starting very low. The bidder wants to get things moving, so yells out a price. This can also happen when no one is bidding on the auctioneer’s number – a person might yell out a lower price they are willing to pay and the auctioneer may start from there.
I never bid first. I wait to see how the bidding is going. I typically have a price in mind that I am willing to pay. As bidding slows, I will jump in if it is within my price range. The auctioneer follows a “schedule” of bid increments when rattling off the dollar amounts. For example, bid increments might be $5 up to $100, and then $25 to 200, etc. You will pick this up very quickly once bidding starts. If you’ve never bid before, watch a little bit so you can see how the particular auctioneer is setting the bid increments.
- If you intend to bid, preview and inspect the piece. There is no substitute for this. Condition of a piece is a huge factor in the value of the piece, and it should be a huge factor in what you are willing to pay. All pieces are sold “as is, where is.” That means that once you’ve won, there is no going back. Sometimes during previews, people may notice a defect that was not in the auction catalogue. In that case, they tell the auctioneer, who makes a note of it and then mentions it when he starts bidding on that piece. If you are bidding online during a live auction, you have to rely upon photos in the auction catalogue and whatever the auctioneer says about the piece. And sometimes the auctioneer is not particularly familiar with cast iron, so you won’t have complete information about the piece.
- Know the maximum you are willing to pay and stick to it. Factor in all of the extra charges that can be incurred as noted in number 1, above. It is very easy to get carried away in the excitement of the auction once you start bidding and to pay more than you intended or wanted to pay. Though I prefer to not do so, I have placed bids for friends when they want something but are not attending the auction. I always have them give me the maximum they are willing to pay, and I carefully inspect the piece before bidding. Only once have I had a friend say “buy it,” meaning “I don’t care how much it costs, I want it.” I bought it.
- If you are bidding, don’t make any sudden movements! I’m only half-kidding. The auctioneer is doing the chant, and ringmen and ringwomen are helping the auctioneer find the people who are bidding. You don’t want your bid to be missed, so hold your paddle high when you bid so the auctioneer can see it. And once you have began bidding, the auctioneer will be looking back to you to see if you want to continue to bid. So if you are talking and you nod at a friend, the auctioneer may take that as a “yes I want to bid” and put the bid in for you. If I am doing intense bidding, I usually raise my paddle high the first time and then when the auctioneer looks at me for subsequent bids I meet his or her eyes and shake my head “yes” or “no.”
- If you are taking wins out to your car, make sure the auction staff know that you are coming back. Auctioneers usually switch off and don’t take much if any of a break. Bidders, however, will sometimes take breaks when there is a bit of time before they want to bid on something. Usually food is offered at a price during the auction; people will take breaks to have a cup of coffee or have something to eat while the auction continues. If you start taking iron out to your car to pack it, though, make sure the auction staff knows you are coming back; you’re not planning to step out without paying. I’ve never seen people fail to pay at an in-person cast iron auction, but I suppose it could happen.
- Remember Karma. I was at an auction once, and knew that Randy intended to bid on a Griswold large block logo EPU number 5 skillet with heat ring. He wanted it for his personal collection. They are scarce, especially in great condition. It would have been a piece I would have loved to have to resell. There were two offered at this particular auction; one with a lid and one without. Randy bid but did not win the first one. The second one – with lid – came up for auction and Randy was nowhere in sight. I bid on the set. I won it for a reasonable wholesale price, and knew I could sell the set for much much more than I had paid for it. Some time later Randy came back from wherever he had gone. I gave him the piece for what I had paid for it. I would have been buying it to resell; Randy wanted it for his personal collection. My relationship with Randy – as well as others in the cast iron community – was more important to me than the money. At my first in-person auction, I was told “there are no friends at auctions,” and I suppose that’s true for some. There will always be another piece; there might not be another friend.
- Bring boxes and packing materials. Think about how you are going to get all of your precious pieces home. Typically the auction house will have some boxes available, and sometimes some newspapers and such to wrap pieces, but they won’t have enough for everyone to pack all of the pieces. I’ve found that going to the produce section of the local grocery store is usually a good bet – banana boxes are often available for free. People also often haul around those big tote boxes that you can buy at Home Depot, too – the ones with the black containers and yellow lids. Pack your pieces carefully. While some think that cast iron is indestructible, that is a fallacy. It is brittle and it can break if not carefully packed. It would be a shame to break a piece on the ride home because of poor packing!
- Remember to pay before you leave, and remember your manners! At some auctions, a strapping young fellow might offer to pack some of your pans, or carry boxes to your car (I always brought a wagon or a cart). Tips are appreciated by these strapping young fellows. Be nice. Nice goes a long way.