The buyer's guide to different types of auctions

Every auction house gives each of its sales a specific title. Once you know what to look out for, it becomes very simple to browse a list of upcoming auctions to find what you want. Here is a quick guide.

Items from a Fine Interiors auction at Sworders

Items from a Fine Interiors auction at Sworders

Weekly and regular auctions

Some UK auction houses hold weekly sales. These might typically be called weekly sales; weekly general sales; general sales; antiques & collectables; vintage & antiques; antiques & interiors; homes & interiors; household sales; home furnishing.

Other auction houses no longer hold such sales every week. Some hold them fortnightly, some monthly but the titles will be quite similar.

A listing of general auction sales

Examples of regular general and antiques sales held on

Usually, the objects offered for sale in all of these auctions tend to be lower value with estimates ranging from a few pounds to a few hundred pounds.

The items typically come from house clearances or have been brought into the auction house. These sales give you an opportunity to buy great value furniture and other home furnishings or discover items that fit into a collection you are creating.

Occasionally an undervalued object will appear in these sales and knowledgeable dealers and collectors will spot it. If they believe is worth much more than the auction house does such items can end up being sold for many times the original estimate and are known in the trade as ‘sleepers’. Watching the bidding on these items in a live auction can be very exciting.

Usually all of these weekly or regular auctions take place during one day.

Fine art or fine interiors auctions

Many UK auction houses hold higher value sales that take place quarterly or in some cases three or six times a year.

These often have titles such as fine art sales; fine sales; fine interiors sales; country house sales.

In these auctions you will find a range of high-quality items often including antique and vintage furniture; paintings; silver; glassware; clocks; ceramics; works of art; watches and jewellery.

An auction house may publish a printed catalogue with colour photos of the lots to complement the online catalogue that you find on A colour printed catalogue is a good indication that the items offered for sale will be of good quality and will typically sell for more than the items in weekly general sales.

These sales may have so many lots in them that they take often place during two or three days.

Specialist auctions

A specialist sale usually focuses on one category of object. You will find such auctions held by large UK auction houses that have specialist departments or by smaller niche auction houses that focus only on one or two categories.

On you will find specialist sales such as: watches; jewellery; designer goods (such as handbags); militaria; arms & armour; coins; stamps; medals; silver; paintings; modern & contemporary art; ceramics; prints; posters; wine & spirits; entertainment memorabilia; photographic equipment; medical and scientific equipment; musical instruments; sport memorabilia; toys, dolls & trains; maps; books and works on paper; Asian art; tribal art; Islamic art.

Or they can comprise combinations such as watches & jewellery or coins & medals.

A list of online specialist auctions

Examples of specialist sales listed on

These sales may also be accompanied by a printed colour catalogue and will attract specialist dealers and collectors.

The regularity of each specialist sale depends on the auction house. Some will hold a particular specialist auction twice a year, for example, whereas others will hold them more frequently. Specialist sales often take place during one day but the larger ones can last two days.

Occasionally, many auction houses will hold the same type of specialist sale during the same week. For example, in Late October and early November you will find dozens of Asian art auctions being held all over the UK to coincide with a festival called Asian Art in London. The idea is that because the dealers and collectors who are interested in this category will be visiting the UK to attend the festival, they will also attend auctions.

Single owner collections

One type of specialist sale that is always worth perusing is an auction of a single owner collection.

This will comprise many items accumulated by the same person over a long period of time, often in one particularly category such as ceramics or silver.

The collector will have developed a discerning eye for the best or rarest items - or may have taken advice from specialist dealers - so it is likely that some very good lots will be included in the sale. However, if they are selling their entire collection it will also include the objects they bought early on when they were starting out as a collector - these tend to be cheaper, meaning there will be something for every budget.

An online catalogue for a ceramics auction

This auction of a single owner collection held at Adam Partridge comprised the items from the collection of ceramics compiled by Jack Blackburn.

Other auction houses

It’s also worth knowing that sales at auction houses from outside the UK also take place on Each country will have its own way of doing things. Many German auction houses, for example, hold only a few sales a year but each sale may comprise many thousands of lots and last a whole week.

An online catalogue for a toy auction

This toy auction held by a German auction house included more than 5000 lots and was held over six days.

Check each house’s listings on the Current Auctions page on the to see what they have coming up. Whatever you’re looking to buy you’ll be able to find it.

Styles of selling

In addition to the different categories of object on offer, an auction can also vary by style of selling. An auction can be live – whereby an auctioneer on the rostrum takes bids from people bidding in the room, on the phone or online.

Or an auction can be timed. In such sales each lot can be bid on for a defined period of time. Bids are placed online. At the end of the period, the bidder who has submitted the highest bid wins the lot, provided the bid exceeds the reserve price.

Timed auctions on typically last for up to a week or two.

You can read our guide to bidding in a live auction and our guide to bidding in a timed auction to learn more.

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