If you have never bid in an auction, it may seem like an intimidating experience. But participating as a bidder can be exciting! We try to make the experience as smooth and enjoyable as possible.
All auctions are free and open to the public. If you’ve never bid with Cowan’s, you’ll need to register on our website or register in person with a member of our auction staff. Registration must include a valid mailing address, phone number, email. Some bidders may be asked for additional identification or bank validation. If you are bidding in person, you will receive a card with your bidder number.
Our auctioneers speak clearly so it’s easy to follow the bidding. As the bidding progresses, the auctioneer announces the current high bid and what amount is needed to advance the bidding. If you wish to bid, simply raise your card. The auctioneer will nod or otherwise acknowledge your bid.
Some lots have a reserve – a minimum selling price. If the bidding fails to reach this price, the lot will remain unsold. A reserve cannot be higher than the low estimate value.
Cowan’s typically sells 80 – 100 lots per hour.
Bidder’s who don’t physically attend the auction can choose to bid using one of our other bidding methods. In the event of a tie bid between an absentee and a floor bidder, the item will go to the floor bidder.
Live Salesroom Auction
Our Live Salesroom Auctions are open to the public and held in front of a live audience in real time.
Bidders who are not physically present can participate via telephone or online, using the Bidsquare platform, or by submitting absentee bids.
Catalogs for our Live Salesroom Auctions are posted on our website and are also in a printed format.
Timed Online Auction
Similar to eBay timed auctions, our Timed Online Auctions are available only on our website.
You can leave bids after registering on our website. If someone tops your bid, your bid will be automatically raised, incrementally, up to your maximum bid amount.
These auctions typically run for ten days. On the final day, lots close sequentially, at 1-minute intervals. A bid placed within 30 minutes of the posted closing time will extend the bidding by 30 minutes. This continues until no more bids are placed.
You will receive an email or text if someone tops your maximum bid, or if you are the winning bidder.
Live Discovery Auction
Like our Live Salesroom Auctions, our Discovery Auctions are open to the public and held in front of a live audience. All lots are sold “As Is”. While we accept absentee bids, we do not provide condition reports or offer telephone or online bidding. Discovery Auctions feature a reduced buyer’s premium.
Cowan’s holds scheduled exhibition previews before each live auction. We encourage all interested buyers to inspect the lots in person.
We make every effort to bring extremely rare or valuable property to serious buyers for inspection as needed.
Printed Auction Catalogs
Cowan’s prints full-color catalogs for most salesroom auctions. Printed catalogs include descriptions, auction estimates, photographs, provenance information and exhibition history for each lot.
Online Auction Catalogs
Our Online catalogs include the same information as printed catalogs – with additional and enlarged photographs of each lot. Live Saleroom Auction catalogs are posted to cowans.com 3-4 weeks prior to the auction.
You can create an account with Cowan’s to track lots, place absentee bids and request additional information.
Cowan’s provides condition reports if requested least 48 hours prior to the start of the auction. Condition reports are given as a courtesy for those who cannot attend the preview, and should not be treated as a statement of fact. The absence of a condition report does not imply the lot is in perfect condition or completely free of imperfection, effects of aging or wear and tear.
Absentee Bid (Left Bid): A method of bidding for those who cannot or do not wish to attend an auction in person. Bids may be placed by telephone, by email, directly on cowans.com or bidsquare.com, or by submitting an absentee bid form via email scan or fax. The bidder specifies her maximum bid. The auctioneer places bids on behalf of the absentee bidder against any competition, starting at the lowest possible selling price, and continues bidding for the absentee bidder, up to her maximum specified bid.
Appraisal: A written statement of value typically used for estate, tax, insurance, charitable contribution or loan purposes. An appraisal should be prepared in accordance with generally accepted appraisal standard, by a qualified, independent, impartial USPAP compliant appraiser. An appraisal reflects the expert’s opinion of the value of an item or group of items, as of a specific date, supported by the presentation and analysis of relevant market information.
As-Is/Where-Is: Property for sale at auction is sold with all existing faults and imperfections. Potential buyers must inspect each item carefully before bidding, or request condition reports. There is one exception to the as-is/where-is rule: authenticity. Reputable houses specify a time within which a lot can be returned if both the auction house and buyer agree it is fake or counterfeit, or was misrepresented.
Asking Price (Bid Price): Once someone has placed a bid, the auctioneer asks if anyone will raise the bid to a next increment above the current bid. The price the auctioneer now seeks is the asking price.
Auction Estimate: A verbal estimate of the low-to-high price range a particular item will likely bring at auction under current market conditions.
Bid Increment: The minimum amount by which the auctioneer must increase the bid. Every auction house sets it own bidding increments. For example, if the bidding at Cowan’s opens at $3000, subsequent bids are $3,250, $3,500, $3,750 – bid increments of $250. Once the bid reaches $5,000, subsequent bids must increase by a minimum of $500. The auctioneer can vary increments at her discretion.
Bidder Number: Every registered auction bidder receives a unique identifying number. As each lot sells, the auction clerk records the bidder number, lot number and bid amount into an electronic or paper record.
Bought-In (Passed): If there are no bids on a lot, or if bidding does not reach the lowest possible selling price, the lot is “bought in,” meaning it is unsold and remains the property of the owner. The auctioneer usually signifies this by saying, “pass.”
Buy-in fee: If a lot fails to sell, many auction houses charge a fee to recoup some or all of the money invested in bringing the lot to market. Cowan’s does not charge a buy-in fee.
Buyer: The person who places the highest bid on an item, and becomes the new owner of that item when her bid is accepted.
Buyer’s Premium: A percentage added to the hammer (winning) price, paid by the buyer to the auction house. Buyer’s Premium + Hammer Price = Total Purchase Price.
Catalog: A print and /or online publication that includes a physical description of every lot in a given auction. Catalog entries include known facts about the item, the name of the artist or maker, the time of its creation, its provenance (history of ownership) and information about exhibitions or publications in which the item has appeared.
Clerk: A person employed by the auction house to record the lot number, hammer price and winning bidder’s number for each lot sold.
Competing Bids: Before and during a sale, an auction house accepts bids for each lot from absentee bidders, phone bidders, online bidders and in-person bidders. The bidders compete with one another; the highest bidder wins to become the lot’s new owner.
Condition Report: A written description of the condition, including the imperfections of an object (or lack thereof), particularly characteristics that may affect value.
Consignor (Seller): The owner of an item for sale by auction. This person authorizes the auction house to act as his agent in handling the sale of his property.
Consignor’s (Seller’s) Agreement: The contract between the auction house and owner of the property being sold.
Fair Market Value: The price that property would sell for on the open market. It is the price agreed on between a willing buyer and a willing seller, with neither being required to act, and both having reasonable knowledge of the relevant facts.
Fair Warning: A warning issued by the auctioneer when the lot is about to close. When an auctioneer announces, “Fair warning,” she means, “bid now or I am closing the lot. This is your last chance.” If no bids are forthcoming, the auctioneer’s hammer falls and the sale is completed.
Gavel: The hammer traditionally used by the auctioneer to mark the start of a sale, as well as the close of bidding on each lot.
Hammer Price/Winning Bid: The highest bid accepted for a lot at auction, at which the auctioneer’s hammer falls. This price does not include the buyer’s premium. Hammer Price + Buyer’s Premium = Total Purchase Price.
Live Auction: An auction conducted in front of a live audience at a physical location in real time. Many auction houses offer other bidding options for those who cannot be present.
Lot: An individual object or group of objects offered for sale at auction as a unit.
Lot number: Every lot in an auction is given a unique number and is sold in numerical order.
Online Bidding: Bidding in advance of an auction or in real time through a computer or electronic device.
Preview (Exhibition): Every lot is available for viewing in the days before an auction. Specialists are available to answer questions. Previews are free and open to the public.
Reserve Price: The lowest price which a seller is willing to accept for his or her property. Reserves must be set at or below the low estimate. If bidding ends before the reserve is reached, the property will not be sold. Most auction houses keep the reserve confidential for the seller.
Results: Soon after every auction, the selling prices, known as the results, are posted online. The results include the hammer price plus the buyer’s premium.
Seller’s Commission: The commission paid by the seller to the auction house for acting as the seller’s agent in the sale of his property. The auction house deducts the seller’s commission (and any agreed upon expenses) from the hammer price and send the balance to the seller.
Specialist: An expert in a specific field of collecting.
Starting Price: The lowest price at which a lot can sell.
Timed Auction: An online-only auction, similar to an eBay-style auction, that runs for a defined period of time. A bidder can place maximum bids on items is notified if he has been outbid. This provides the option to increase his bid. When the pre-set time is up, the auction ends and the highest bidder on each lot is notified that he has won.
Telephone Bidding: Bidding by telephone with a representative of the auction house, who is present at the auction to relay bids to the auctioneer on the bidder’s behalf.
Terms of Sale: The contract between the bidder and the auction house that specifies the legal terms governing bidding and purchase.
Unreserved Auction: An auction at which there are no minimum bids or reserve prices set on the lots. Every item is sold to the highest bidder, regardless of price.