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The Lure of the Large Vintage Cast Iron Auction, and Twelve Handy-Dandy Tips!

The Lure of the Large Vintage Cast Iron Auction, and Twelve Handy-Dandy Tips!

**Most recent update 7/31/18. I keep thinking of more tips! 🙂

It’s easy to become quickly overwhelmed 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.

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Items “won” at a large vintage cast iron auction.

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Previewing pieces that will be available at auction.

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 real 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 deciding 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 my 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 located about 11 hours from my home. The iron offerings took my breath away – it was spectacular. I didn’t know a soul. This time, however, I was more savvy about what I was looking for. At the time, 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 back then as 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 cooking. 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 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 select some additional 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, 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 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.

The very large vintage cast iron cookware auctions usually consist of pieces from one or more long-time collectors who are liquidating their collections. The auctions often take place over the course of several days. The pieces offered are typically in very good to excellent condition (they are collector’s pieces, after all), though as always, personal inspection prior to purchase is a must, as all pieces are sold “as is. where is” The pieces most often require some amount of cleaning and re-seasoning, but they are typically in cleaner and better condition than most you would find at a flea market, unless from a dealer who cleaned and seasoned pans prior to re-selling. It makes sense that the pieces would be in better-than-usual condition, because after all, they are pieces a person has collected and cherished, cared for and admired and valued over the years. They are part of history, and they are an important part of the collector’s life. Parting must be such sweet sorrow.

Here are some tips to help you out when you attend a large vintage cast iron auction:

    1. 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 and giving you a “paddle” – typically a piece of card stock with your bidder number prominently marked on it. Some auction houses will ask for a credit card number up front; some won’t. Some auction houses allow you to pay by credit or debit card; some don’t. If you pay by credit or debit card, some auction houses will tack on 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 paid by check.Be sure to consider whether you will be hauling your winnings home with you, or whether they will be shipped to you. 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 is charged to pack and ship. Some auction houses have a company such as UPS come in to pack the items and ship them off, and other auction houses do not charge for packing and charge actual shipping cost. You need to find these things out  before you start bidding – you want to know the actual price you are paying; not just the successful bid price. Something that you purchased at a decent “base” price might turn out to be much more expensive than originally thought.
    2. 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 Freda McAllister usually sit in the back, as does Vincent Warren, though sometimes Vincent stands and sometimes he sits. And sometimes he disappears for a while. 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 “reserve” a spot pre-auction 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 near or 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 purchase.
      simmons auctioneering auction vintage cast iron cookware antique bid buy sell
      2017 vintage and antique cast iron cookware auction run by the Simmons Auctioneering Company in Richmond, Missouri.
      Sonny McCarter
      Sonny working an auction.

      griswold cast iron cookware auction G&CICA convention baton rouge louisiana
      2018 GCICA auction in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
    3. Do not bid first. Once you have provided your information,you will be handed a “paddle.” The paddle is often a piece of card stock or a paint stir stick with a piece of cardboard attached to it upon 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.
      Josh Miller, holding his “paddle,” after winning his first-ever piece at an auction. Josh at the time was the Editor of Southern Cast Iron; he is now the Food Editor at Cooking Light Magazine. Just a wonderful person!

      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 usually follows a “schedule” of bid increments when chanting 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.

      Bid increments for Simmons Auctioneer’s Cast Iron Auction in Richmond, MO July 2018.
    4. 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. Sometimes, there is no auction catalogue at all; just a flyer that says “cast iron cookware” will be offered at the sale.
      Pieces to be auctioned are typically available for inspection a day or two before the auction opens. During pre-auction inspection (at any auction house), it is not uncommon to find hidden flaws. Hairline cracks may be discovered, or pitting or warpage noted that isn’t visible in the listing photos. For example, at the July 2018 Simmons vintage cast iron auction, several of us concluded that two pieces offered (a “Griswold” Vienna pan and a “Griswold” turk pan) were most likely reproductions. A few pieces were also noted to have small hairline cracks that were only visible upon close inspection. When defects such as these are discovered during inspection, the person who found the imperfection tells the auctioneer so that the auctioneer can inform potential bidders. At the July 2018 auction, auctioneer Bob Simmons made note of the flaws and concerns that were discovered during inspection, and their team passed out a sheet of paper noting the concerns prior to the auction. Ultimately, however, it is the buyer’s responsibility to know what they are buying before they bid.
    5. 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.
    6. 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. Once you have began bidding, the auctioneer will look 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.”
    7. If you are taking wins out to your car, let 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, sometimes take breaks when there is a bit of time before something they want comes up for bid. Food is usually offered for sale during auctions; people 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.
    8. Karma. I was at an auction once, and knew that Randy Young 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 with 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. When I was selling vintage cast iron cookware, I wasn’t always greeted with great enthusiasm by collectors at auctions. Basically, my bids drove the price up for collectors, and I was purchasing for resale. It was a tricky line to walk.
    9. 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!
    10. 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.
    11. If you are placing an absentee bid, understand in advance how it will be placed and treated during the auction. If you want a piece but can’t be at the auction in person or live online via Proxibid, you can place an “absentee bid.” Auctions have different ways to place an absentee bid; if you want to place one, ask the auction house how you can place an absentee bid and how they handle absentee bids. During an auction, there are at least two ways that absentee bids are handled. One way is where a person associated with the auction house acts as the “absentee bidder,” and places bids for you. It is treated just as any other piece. For example if I placed an absentee bid with a maximum of $50, the person present would bid just as any other bidder up to my maximum of $50, and then would drop out. If I was lucky, the person bidding for me might snag the piece for less than my maximum.
      Another way I have seen absentee bids handled, however, which I dislike, is where the auctioneer starts the bidding at the maximum of an absentee bid. For example, if my maximum bid was $50, the auctioneer would start the bidding at $50. As far as I’m concerned, that’s no bargain.It is in the auctioneer’s interest to get the highest price possible. Auctioneers are typically paid on commission, though the amount (and what is included in that amount) varies from company to company. For example, the Simmons Auctioneering Company charges 15% of total sales plus actual expenses for advertising, room rental, brochures, etc. The services of the auctioneer, “ring men,” cashiers and other members of the team are included in that commission. Other auctioneers might charge a higher percentage i.e. 25%, but include those additional expenses in that commission percentage.
    12. Do not place online bids in advance of the auction start. When an auction house wants wide coverage, they may choose to also run the auction online simultaneously, via a service such as Proxibid. In that event, the full auction catalogue, including photos, is typically uploaded in advance of the live auction. Bidding online opens once the catalogue is uploaded.
      I am always amazed by people who bid on pieces online before the auction begins. Peeps – all you are doing is driving the price up! If you can’t follow along online during the auction, place an absentee bid. It’s like bidding on an eBay item well in advance of an auction ending; you know that the serious bidders are going to come in at the last minute. A piece that is at $10 3 days before the auction end may skyrocket in the last few seconds of an auction to $500 or more. It just does not make any sense to bid online before the end of the auction. Think about it. If your maximum bid is $50 and you can’t be online during the auction, arrange to place an absentee bid of $50. That way you might actually win the item, and you might even get it for less than $50. If you’ve driven the bid up to $50 before the auction even starts, and the item is worth at least $50 and someone wants it as much as you, the auctioneer will start the bidding at $50 and just one more bid and you’ve lost the item.

All this said, though, have fun! These auctions are an amazing sight to behold. If you have an interest in vintage cast iron cookware, it’s definitely worth checking out!

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