Not quite sure what defines the Georgian, Regency and Federal styles? Are you unable to distinguish between a fauteuil and a poudreuse? Don't worry. On preview days, there are specialists to field all such inquiries. One of them, Jane Munson, said, "Sometimes people ask about a piece's history, sometimes it's a bit of decorating advice."

While we chatted, a guy dumped a box of silver onto the floor. Not trusting the count printed in the catalog, he began making neat piles of all the knives, forks and spoons. Observing this, Munson's smile tightened ever so slightly.

On auction day, rows of folding chairs were set up for nearly 200 people. There is no admission charge at Doyle (or any auction house, for that matter), but to obtain the numbered paddle that is a prerequisite for bidding, one must fill in a brief application form and supply a credit card number.

With no preamble, the auctioneer begins the sale. He speaks quickly, but articulately -- a slight British accent evident in his clipped consonants.

The proceedings move unnervingly fast, and Doyle's handlers sometimes barely manage to hoist an item up onto a display platform before the gavel crashes downward. Sold!

For all the frenzy, bear in mind that you are completely invisible until you forcibly enter the fray. Take a moment, then, to observe the varying techniques. Some people start bidding immediately; others wait until a certain price point is reached. Still others keep their paddle raised as the volleying goes back and forth -- a calculatedly provocative move, as a brandished paddle is like a loaded gun.

If it's good, it's worth waiting for. This, apparently, was the motto of Mary Jane Bauer, an interior designer from Newburgh, N.Y., who worked steadily away at her needlepoint of a lobster while keeping an ear cocked for Lot 326, a set of dining room chairs. Eventually, she placed the winning bid of $6,000. Was she happy?

"No. Now I'm nervous," Bauer said. "Whenever I get something, I always feel I overpaid."

This, then, is the conundrum of an auction. With all distinctions between value and price in flux, only you can decide what something is worth.

Venerable Sotheby's

Sotheby's starkly modern glass and steel facade is strangely at odds with how frequently the words "established in 1744" appear on the auction house's walls, posters and catalogs.

Venerable Sotheby's may be, though its location on York Avenue between a hospital and a nursing home is an unsettling reminder that what you're about to bid on has passed through other lives. In other words, regardless of how great a bargain you may get, ultimately you can't take it with you.

In late June, Sotheby's held a "Take Home a Nude" auction as a fund-raiser for the New York Academy of Art. Most of the paintings for sale were by the academy's students -- though there was also a sprinkling of works by better known artists such as Roy Lichtenstein, Bo Bartlett and Matthew Barney.

Despite the auction's leering title, this was far from an erotic show. In almost all the paintings of women, contrived bits of modesty -- a draped bedsheet, the curve of an elbow -- were deployed. In contrast, male subjects, such as a Jamie Wyeth drawing of the dancer Rudolph Nureyev, wore their birthday suits with a vaguely embarrassing zeal.

I was quite alone with such thoughts, as the charmless exhibition rooms were completely empty and silent, save for the clatter of escalators carrying no one from floor to floor. On my way out, I passed a Sotheby's Real Estate office where multimillion-dollar properties are for sale. Did the same person who bought a 27-room villa in Barbados then dash upstairs and buy a few nudes to hang in the guest bathrooms?

Visit Sotheby's on a sultry summer afternoon, and one feels pity for the very rich. As the old saying goes, it's lonely at the top.

Things were perkier at the auction, because someone had the dubious brainstorm to hire a group of nearly nude go-go dancers. Painted with fluorescent swirls, these men and women writhed, sweating, beneath strobe lights. Guests gave wide berth to the dance floor, as they did to those canvases with the most flesh visible.

"I actually don't think I even like nudes," said Kim Van Dang, an editor at InStyle magazine.

There was something puzzling about a room full of people who have flocked to a "Take Home a Nude" art auction, yet like Van Dang, didn't appear to like nudes. As the essence of bidding is to publicly avow one's desire for something, this auction was, frankly, a bust. Not until the Nureyev drawing was up on the block, eventually selling for $28,000, did things briefly become exciting. In what was a perfect irony, however, the winner remained anonymous. She, or he, was concealed behind the fig leaf of a telephone bid.

'Fresh property''