You'll never find such variety of jewelry for sale as you will at a jewelry auction. You can bid on everything from antique jewelry from the 1800s to contemporary masterpieces, exquisite loose gemstones, or pieces with exceptional provenance that were owned by celebrities or royalty. With so many choices, it can be difficult to know where to begin, intimidating first-time buyers. You can find everything from simple, everyday earrings that go for under $5,000 to record-breaking diamonds that cost more than $50 million. (The record price achieved at auction went for the Pink Star, a 59.60-carat fancy vivid pink, internally flawless diamond that sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong for $71.2 million in 2017.) Auction houses hold live and online auctions throughout the year, but the biggest are held in spring and winter.

Joanne Prager, a former auctioneer at Sotheby’s who is a sought-after jewelry consultant and author, is an expert at helping clients navigate auctions through her work at Omneque, a London-based vintage-jewelry platform. In a Zoom interview, she spoke with us about the sometimes-confusing auction world, and shared her best practices to help you find—and win—pieces you will love.

Why buy at auction instead of from a store? Contemporary designs sell at auction for lower prices than in stores—sometimes for less than half the retail price. Even the higher prices of more iconic pieces won’t reach retail levels. For example, an 18K yellow gold Cartier Love bracelet retails for $6,900, but several pieces recently sold at auction for less than $5,000. Loose, unsigned stones typically cost less than they would from a dealer, too. If you don’t have relationships with jewelers, sometimes you can acquire pieces only at auction. JAR is one of the most sought-after contemporary designers, but he makes very few pieces annually and just to a small, known clientele. A new JAR collector would have to purchase at auction.

On the higher end, pieces with unique provenance, such as crown jewels or items from celebrities and notable collectors, usually sell at auction instead of stores in order to achieve the highest prices.

Try to experience pieces in person, if you can.
While auction houses do a great job of photographing pieces and communicating details to remote clients, Prager says nothing beats seeing jewelry in person. The scale and dimensions of a piece are extremely important. You want to be sure that the piece fits the size of your wrist or finger, that you like how a necklace feels draped around your neck, or that an earring is the right size for you (or isn’t too heavy to wear). The scale of a piece can sometimes be misleading on a white screen. If you want to resize a ring, you’ll need to note where the piece’s hallmarks and signatures are, because if you resize a ring and lose those marks, the piece will instantly lose valuable. Not to mention that “everyone’s screens are slightly different in color,” Prager says. “Just be aware that when you are buying at auction, the color you are seeing on your screen might not necessarily be the color of the gem you’re buying.”

In-person, you can also examine the details. To judge craftsmanship, Prager looks at the back of a piece, the fittings, and how the piece is secured. If a clasp or an earring clip seems loose, that’s cause for concern. In addition to examining lots that have caught her eye in an auction catalog, she might find stellar pieces she overlooked online.

Do a condition check yourself.
If you can’t make it to an auction house, she recommends having the house send you videos of the piece in several different light sources (certainly, white light and sunlight). Request that someone with a similar size try the piece on so you can see how it looks when worn. Significant gemstones should come with certificates from independent laboratories. Each piece will have a condition report noting its overall condition, as well as any markings, which can be viewed in person and online.

Set a bid limit.
Once you’ve decided on pieces that you want to bid on, it’s time to determine what you are willing to pay. Because there are few things as thrilling as finding an elusive piece of jewelry you’ve been searching for, you can easily get swept away and overpay. “You must never, ever want something desperately. You can’t do the desperate bit. You’ve got to be pretty cool,” Prager says. “You have to have a cutoff point. You don’t want to buy something and then regret it. … Make sure you have a limit, because there will always be another auction and you’ll fall in love with something else.”

Be aware that the price you bid on—the hammer price—is not the final price you will pay. The final amount will include a buyer’s premium, which can range from 13% to nearly 30%, depending on the hammer price, as well as applicable taxes, shipping costs, and overhead premiums.

Even if you’re bidding at home, outside the frenetic live environment, Prager urges caution: “The auctioneers are quite persuasive, and they can be very persuasive online,” she says. “It’s as if you’re having a personal conversation with the auctioneer.”

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