Auction vs. Tag Sale

Tips & Guides Article

This article appeared in the June/July 1999 issue of Antique Prime Magazine & Journal.

For What It’s Worth …

Q. What’s the difference between an estate sale and an estate auction? 

A. The purpose of estate sales, sometimes referred to as “tag” sales, and estate auctions is similar: to sell the contents of a home. It is the procedure that is different. The estate sale managers, or their employees, decide what price to put on each item. They write the asking price on a tag or label and attach it to the item. If items don’t sell the first day, the prices are reduced. At auction, the selling price is determined by the bidders, not the auctioneer. 

You have the opportunity to preview the items to be sold before the sale starts at an auction. It is always to your benefit to thoroughly inspect anything that you might bid on, checking it for authenticity and condition. At a tag sale, especially if you are one of the first in line when the sale opens, you may not have time to thoroughly examine your purchases until you get them home. Someone could purchase the item while you are still looking it over.

Tag sales provide the best selection of merchandise when the sale starts, and the pickings get slimmer as the sale progresses. I’ve known some insistent shoppers to get in line at 4:00 A.M. for a good sale, just so they could be in the first rush through the door. Keep in mind that even if you are the first one in, the second shopper may head into a different room from you and find the bargain of the decade. Auctions allow everyone the same opportunity to purchase whatever is in that sale and you don’t have to stand in line for hours to get in.

If you are unable to attend an auction, you can usually leave absentee bids. A member of the auctioneer’s staff will bid for you on the items that you specify, up to but not over the amount you indicate. This works best if you have previewed the items. Bids are sometimes accepted at tag sales. If you have an interest in an item but want to pay less than the price on the tag, ask if you can leave your name and amount you are willing to pay. Some estate sale managers will ask that you write a check for the amount bid. If the item sells for more than your bid, your check is returned or destroyed. 

Got a complaint? Too bad, if it’s about an estate sale incident. There is no licensing or regulation in the estate sale business. Auctioneers, however, must be licensed in Texas. It is mandatory that the auctioneer include the address and phone number of the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation on a sign posted in a conspicuous place, on your bidder card, or on the receipts given to successful bidders. This address for unresolved complaints must also appear on the seller’s contract.

If you are the seller, you’ll pay a commission to either the estate sale manager or to the auctioneer. The auctioneer, however, may charge you a lower commission and make up the difference by including a buyers premium, paid by the successful bidders. This is usually a percentage of the hammer price. Items that don’t sell during an estate sale can be donated to charity, given away, or sent to the dump. All saleable items are sold at auction and nothing is left at the conclusion of the sale. How? If there is no interest in an item, it is grouped with a desirable item and both are sold together. With either method of selling, your home should be left empty and broom clean.

If you’re not already on mailing lists, you can find estate sales in the Dallas Morning News in the L-11 section (Antiques & Art) of the Classified Ads. Auctions are listed in L-8 (Auction Sales) and, in the Sunday edition, on the back page of the employment section. If you’ve never attended an estate sale or an estate auction, why not give it a try? You just might find that bargain of the decade!


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