The Secret Way to Score the Best Vintage Gems (That’s Even Easier Than Thrifting)

published Jan 4, 2024
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
back view of buyer showing auction paddle with number five to auctioneer during auction
Credit: LightField Studios/Shutterstock

When you think of auctions, do you imagine a fast-talking, cowboy hat-wearing man in a community hall, shouting numbers while collectors raise paddles? Do you think of elusive bidders on their private jets, phoning in exorbitantly high offers to brokers at an auction of one-of-a-kind art? 

These are the images that have come to mind for years, but as younger generations’ love of secondhand goods grows it seems they’re graduating from thrift stores to auction houses. This accompanies an overall growth spurt in recent years for auctions — according to the International Gemological Institute, the auction market did $12.6 billion in sales at Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Phillips in 2021 (2022 numbers are not available yet), which is 2.3% higher than the previous record set in 2018. 

Selden Morgan, director of sales and fine jewelry at Alex Cooper Auctioneers, a Baltimore-based auctioneer that runs both online and live in-person auctions, confirms the growth story. At Alex Cooper, she reports seeing increases in both registered bidders and buyers in recent years, and younger bidders are driving a portion of that.

“We see 10-15% new bidders every time we host an auction,” says Morgan, who notes that jewelry, contemporary paintings and art, furniture, and designer bags are among the most popular with new buyers.

This growth is not by accident. Morgan reports that they are actively working on building awareness with new generations through social media and influencer word of mouth. Younger people are accustomed to seeing items online and making a snap decision. They’re buying vintage items on Instagram — spotting auctions on social media and placing a bid is just the next step.

Plus, as Morgan explains, an older generation loved auctions. It may have skipped their parents, but millennial and Gen Z buyers are returning to what’s old. “They want to know who owned it, why it was special to them, and how they had it displayed. The younger generation really loves that history! They want to know the stories,” says Morgan.

“Their grandparents bought their furniture at auctions, and now they’re doing the same. They’re looking for items that have lived chapters of their lives already. This is allowing those items to live another chapter with a new person. Plus, it’s sustainable, and that’s important to younger people,” explains Morgan.

At Alex Cooper, Morgan explains that many new bidders come through their Discover auctions. “Discover auctions start at $20, but all items are online only and professionally photographed. It’s a fun platform for entry into auctions because it’s less intimidating. 

For those who are new to auction, Morgan says, “We have the most well-trained, passionate experts in their individual fields working on our auctions, but it’s important for people to also do their own research and decide what they’re comfortable with. Place a max bid where you would feel comfortable walking away. If you can place alerts, do it. Have your eyes on the app that day.”

So what does this actually look like in practice for a first-timer? Jennifer Valdivieso Parks, who lives in Washington, DC, and is enthusiastic about both vintage home goods and clothing, had her first auction experience this fall. “I’ve decorated 90% of my house in vintage and secondhand items purchased on Facebook Marketplace, thrift stores, and through vintage resellers — but never through an auction house. At first glance, auction houses felt intimidating and I worried about being out of my financial league,” says Parks. 

She also noted that part of the allure of thrifting is finding those hidden gems that have slipped under the radar of the shop purveyor, like finding a diamond billed as a cubic zirconium. Parks explains, “Auction houses are paid to know and research products, so I knew that thrill wouldn’t be there.”

But she came across an auctioneer on social media and decided to try her hand at it. “There was so much I didn’t know,” explains Parks, who stumbled across the perfect emerald ring while looking through lots. 

That lack of knowledge was her auction downfall. She didn’t fully understand how the process works and lost the ring when she tried to strategize. “I put myself on an emotional rollercoaster that day! I felt excitement, thrill, anxiety, confusion, and sadness. I submitted a bid but didn’t realize it was a live auction. I thought I won when in fact the live auction had just opened.” If she could do it again, she would have entered her highest bid in the app early and let it bid for her.

“After obsessive internet searching I found the exact ring I lost, and which sold for $500, listed on Etsy for $2,700. It was an amazing deal for whoever won,” says Parks, who made the TikTok above about the experience.

But, despite her loss, would she do it again? “Absolutely.”