Know before you go: Auction ABCs

Khristi Zimmeth
Special to The Detroit News

When it comes to auctions, there are many misconceptions. One of them is that just scratching your nose can commit you to spending thousands of dollars on an item.

“In reality, you have a bidder number and have to be preregistered to buy,” says Bob DuMouchelle, who has worked at his family’s auction house since since 1988. Occupying a historic building almost directly across from downtown’s Renaissance Center, the company has been involved in many of the area’s most elegant and historic auctions through the years, including the Whitney estate, many of the Fisher homes, and the Dodge-Ranger estate, among others.

Despite the company’s longevity, there’s still mystery involving the process, he says. To shed light on how the sometimes-intimidating process works, we recently followed a rare piece of pottery from estate to auction, where it sold well over the initial estimate.

The discovery

An auction is basically a process of selling items to the highest bidder, says DuMouchelle. Items can be sold over the course of a few hours or a few days, either in person or via absentee bid. For the seller, an auction can be a means of selling a large number of goods over a short period.

The path an item takes to the auction house can be a circuitous one, says DuMouchelle, who recently auctioned off a rare iridescent planter that was discovered in an estate in the Grosse Pointes. It all started with a call from Cynthia Campbell and Betsy Kmetz, owners of Fresh Start Organizing and Estate Sales, who contacted him a few months ago about the contents of a house they were clearing out for a client.

“Fresh Start wanted to make sure the client got the maximum value out of the items, so they contacted me to come and take a look,” DuMouchelle explains. He cherry-picked five items — pieces he calls “the cream of the crop” — to take to auction instead of attempting to sell them through the estate sale.

Among them was a large piece of iridescent pottery that the auctioneer instantly recognized as Zsolnay, a Hungarian brand. According to, Zsolnay was made in Hungary after 1853 and is characterized by Persian, Art Nouveau or Hungarian motifs. Early examples of the pottery are not marked, but the trademark tower was used after 1878.

“There were a lot of unique things,” Campbell says. “You could almost hear the excitement in Bob’s voice when he saw it. It’s something you rarely find and we knew it needed a wider market.”

The auction

The circa 1900 planter had a height of 8 inches and a width of 14 inches. The large piece was among the many included in DuMouchelle’s July auction, where the price it brought stunned even the veteran auctioneer. “Conservatively, I put $3,000 to $5,000 on it at first but I knew I could get that all day long,” he explained.

The piece went quickly to $3,500, he explains. After that, there were just three or four people bidding, and prices kept rising until it was at $8,000. It then dropped to just two bidders, who kept lobbing bids back and forth until one finally prevailed at $12,500.

The entire sale took about three minutes, he explains, which is a long time for one item. “I felt it would go somewhere between $6,000 and $8,000,” DuMouchelle predicted, adding that it was sold over the internet to a national buyer, something becoming more and more common.

“When it went well above that I was extremely happy,” he says. “And obviously, so was the person who sold it.”

Do you have an object you would like to know more about? Send a photo and description that includes how you acquired the object to: The Detroit News, Trash or Treasure?, 160 W. Fort St., Detroit, MI 48226. Include your name and telephone number. You may also send your information to If chosen you’ll need to bring the items to an appraisal session. Letters are edited for style and clarity. Photos cannot be returned.