I love old furniture.
Also, I am cheap.
I cannot shop at antiques stores. I am that sighing looky-lou who caresses everything and buys nothing.
So when I needed a china cabinet for the dining room in our new Cape Cod, I decided to look in earnest for a bargain. I hit the weekly auction held at Alexander's Antiques in Beaufont Mall, at the intersection of Midlothian Turnpike and Chippenham Parkway.
Alexander's is a clearinghouse for estate sales, attended mostly by local antiques dealers. Individual buyers get the chance to buy fine furniture at wholesale prices if they're quick on the draw.
I'll confess I don't know much about furniture. I appreciate a nice dovetail joint, but I can't tell Duncan Phyfe from Sheraton. I was just looking for something I liked cheap. A recent Thursday night began with lots of options.
6:10 p.m. I walk into Alexander's, where a crowd is milling around the maze of highboys, lowboys, chairs, cabinets and china. I get my number and start looking. Ooh, I love this Federal cabinet. And this bow-front cabinet. And that Oriental chest. And that sideboard with the mirrored doors.
6:29 p.m. I write "max $400" in my notebook and outline it in purple ink, to curb any sudden impulses.
6:30 p.m. Floorman and ringmaster Keith Smith, who owns the business with his wife, Barbara Ann, presents the first piece for sale. It's a map chest: a squarish, glass-topped chest with 18th-century maps glued to each of several removable drawers. Four employees stand with cell phones pressed to their ears, taking phone bids.
"Thousand. Thousand. I got a thousand," auctioneer Roy Martin says. The bid climbs until, one by one, the guys on the phone shake their heads. The chest goes for $1,565, bringing a fusillade of applause from the audience.
6:45 p.m. I watch the practiced dealers bid. They raise their hands and wave downward, as if they're trying to pull something out of the air.
A delicate Hepplewhite desk with pencil inlay goes for $600. A white chandelier with frolicking naked cherubs fetches $500.
I duck my head and pull my hair back in a clip, afraid I'll reach up to brush away a strand and find myself the high bidder on the three-foot terracotta giraffe.
Martin has an easy, jocular manner. He calls every bidder "young lady" or "young man," no matter how gray.
A crew of about 15 raises and rotates each piece for the audience to admire. They beat on the backs of cabinets to grab buyers' attention. They poke chandeliers with a long bamboo pole to make them sway and sparkle.
All the while, Smith praises the unblemished tops, the intricate inlay, the vintage.
"Not new!" he calls.
Or, "Definitely got some age to it, sir."
Or, "These are old, sir."
All of which is to say: You're not at Haynes, folks.
8 p.m. I decide I don't like pediments. Too fussy. This knocks out most of the china cabinets still on the floor.
8:30 p.m. A young auction employee jumps out of a giant oak armoire to wake up the nodding crowd. The stir soon subsides.
10 p.m. The fluorescent lights hurt my eyes. A simple teak cabinet I'd had my eye on jumped up to $600 before I could raise my hand. The big rooms are draining of people and furniture. I realize I might walk out of the auction hall with nothing.
10:15 p.m. No. I am determined to get a good deal on something, darn it. I bid on a tall, carved teak bookcase and get it for $155. Yes!
Finally, as the clock approaches 11, another old teak cabinet is hauled up to the front. It's a bit battered. I like it. I bid $300.
A woman near the front bids too. We reach $400 and she shakes her head.
It's mine. And it looks fabulous in the dining room.
Be a Better Bidder
1. Do your homework.
Looking for a specific piece, like a Victorian sideboard or a Hepplewhite chest? Visit a few local antiques stores and check out the prices, so you'll know if you're getting a good deal.
2. Talk to the staff.
Ask them anything. Where did this piece come from? How much does it typically go for? What condition was it in when it arrived?
3. Wait a minute.
The auctioneer typically starts out high if he gets no bids, he'll drop the starting price considerably. If you jump in too soon, you may pay too much.
4. Seek out smart buys.
"Rugs are a steal," Keith Smith says. You can get a large, hand-knotted Persian rug for $300-$400. Mahogany dining sets from the 1940s "the stuff everybody's grandma had" are also a great value, he says.
5. Make it work with your schedule.
Preview the pieces online or all day Thursday. Then leave a bid, bid by phone or request that the auctioneer sell a particular piece early in the evening. Of course, the sooner a piece goes on the block, the more potential bidders will see it.
6. Or spend all night.
Each auction continues until everything goes. If you have the stamina to stay until midnight (or sometimes 3 a.m.), you may be able to snag an entire bedroom set for $600 or a complete set of china for $50.
7. Factor in the fees.
Alexander's charges a 13 percent buyer's premium, with a 3 percent discount for paying with cash or check. Delivery starts at $70.