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How to enjoy an auction, and which common mistake to avoid

Auctions are everywhere today. They are online, in person at local venues, and in person or by absentee bid at the big places, like Rock Island Auctions.

eBay and GunBroker, local farm equipment at Farmer Joe’s barn, on-site home and property auctions, regional outfits like Cordier, and the big ones like Christies, Sotheby’s, etc. Many auctions to choose from, all following some auction format, each with some minor but important differences (warranty, returns, defects, descriptions etc).

Pretty much anything you might need, or as is more common, want, is available at an auction.

Auctions offer an opportunity to get things unobtainable in any other venue, except perhaps through specialized and usually expensive dealers. For truly rare and expensive items, an auction may be the only place to bid on them, before they are whisked away to the next private collection. Auctions are fun and potentially lucrative for the buyer, almost never for the seller, and are definitely lucrative for the auctioneer, who charges both seller and buyer.

Auctions used to involve travel, getting a bidder number (no small feat way back when), and sitting through often tedious hours of boring junk while waiting for your own magic piece of paraphernalia to come up.

Auctions today are mostly different, though you can always travel to that upcounty farm liquidation sale, if you want that local flavor.

The Information Age and modern hand-held technology have entered into most auctions. Almost every auction today has an online bidding option, even the local ones, through either their own website or through ProxiBid, a real-time PayPal-like intermediary between seller and bidder. Many auctions allow bidders to place absentee bids through faxes or emails.

Never before have auction bidders had so much convenience and flexibility.

And online bidding really is unbelievably convenient. No more standing out in the cold, or waiting hours for your particular lot to come up. You find what you want online, put in your highest dollar number in their software, and go about your life, waiting patiently to see the result. If you really want it, really gotta have it, then you can probably find one with the Buy It Now option.

With auction sites like eBay, you have the choice to put in your highest bid, and wait to see if it wins, or you can also participate in that last 45 seconds of the auction, when there is a flurry of bidding by people trying to snipe one another and put in the winning bid, without disclosing that amount ahead of time.

And this is key.

The purpose to this last-second-snipe approach is, by not filing your highest bid up front, you do not disclose your final willingness to pay, your maximum bid.

That keeps other bidders guessing about their competition up until the last second. You may end up with a good deal at low risk, but it is definitely a hands-on approach.

It highlights a critical rule about auctions: The worst mistake a buyer can make in any auction is to disclose (to anyone) what his willingness to pay is; that is, his highest or maximum bid, the highest bid he is willing to make on any given item.

Once someone has that number, they can and will use it against you, even though they might justify it as helping their client, the seller.

Even though this is an obvious mistake, it is nonetheless very common, because online bidding has changed the culture of bidding at all auctions, including live ones with an actual auctioneer calling out bids.

With online auctions, filing your highest bid ahead of time is a common practice, because it is so convenient. You plop in your highest number to the auction software, and walk away. If you win, you win, if you don’t, you don’t. You put your best foot forward and if you don’t succeed, that is OK, because you did not exceed your self-imposed limit.

Although this process is not transparent, for the most part it works for buyers. Probably because the stakes are usually too low to warrant the high risk to the seller or auctioneer manipulating the bidding outcome.

Modern online auction bidding is nothing like what auctions used to be, but this newfound ease and convenience also comes with a potential cost when it comes to live auctions. That cost is bidders will absolutely face fake bids placed by the auctioneer. As a result, bidders will see the price of their object artificially boosted well beyond the actual market demand, much more than would happen at a traditional live auction, and with even less accountability.

It is easy enough for live auctioneers to plant “shill” bidders and bids in their audience. In the blended world of live-and-also-online auctions, some auctioneers video record some, but not all, of the proceedings. Sadly, these recordings are laughably useless, but they give the veneer of propriety and accountability.

Bidders at live auctions today are dropping their guard, because the absentee bidding process in online auctions is now routine. Bidders assume there is no risk in this, no matter how high priced the item, because everything else they bid on goes smoothly in the online auctions. Yes, eBay has had some problems over the years, with obvious meddling by sellers in their own auctions, but those seem to be few and far between these days. And in any event, the prices and values were relatively low.

But what happens when you have a high-value item up for bid at live auction? Let’s say, a collectible gun, or an authenticated Persian rug, or a bona fide piece of rare art. These are items worth thousands or tens of thousands of dollars. With these numbers, there is a real incentive for the auctioneer or seller to manipulate the bidding process, to make the price go higher. They can take that absentee bid, your maximum, which should be held like a state secret, and they can create fake bids to get you up to your limit.

The problem here is that when you, the bidder, filed an absentee bid anywhere close to real money (thousands, tens of thousands of dollars), you violated the number one rule of bidding at auction: You disclosed the maximum amount you were willing to pay, ahead of time.

And now that the auction house or auctioneer has your highest bid in front of them, they can find “shill” bidders to post fake bids against you to artificially drive up the price. For you to prove they did this, even when it is obvious, you must file a legal complaint and pay an attorney to go through the discovery process. It is as easy as an auctioneer asking a well-known old dealer chum to throw in a few bids on an item, just to “help out.”

So our take-away is this: Do not file absentee bids for high-cost items.

Either participate in the auction in person, by phone, or through a buyer who is present in the room when the auction is being held.

To that point, I recently watched a video of an auctioneer and his assistant. This video was supposed to demonstrate the honest way in which the auction was held. Lots of gesticulating and interacting by the auctioneer and assistant. They were both dramatically acting on bids as if the room was packed and the bids were flying in.

Someone who was there told me the room actually held very few buyers, and all of them were hardened dealers. Overall there were very few bids, basically only one or two per item, for the entire auction. Few of the bids came from within the room, and most were absentee bids and phone bids relayed to the auctioneer by the auction house’s own employees.

But from the showman’s antics on the video, you would think a couple hundred buyers were seated there, every one of whom was waving their number.

How many absentee bids were artificially jacked by the showman on that day? How many buyers were shilled?

Auction buyer beware; file no absentee bids for real money (everyone has their limit, but mine would be anything above $1,000).

Participate in high-stakes auctions directly, or have someone else participate for you. But do not ever disclose your maximum bid to anyone, especially to the auction house. Because no matter what, it will be used against you, regardless of the empty promises made about how “safe” your bid is with them. Auction houses are in business to make money, and they will do that any way they can, and it is always at the buyer’s expense.

Dangerous waters ahead

Does the right hand know what the left hand is doing at the Corbett campaign?  Are the very young people working there really up to it, do they have the background to successfully carry this off?  Trying to knock an unknown candidate off the ballot looks weak. Trying to pick a fight with sportsmen is just plain foolish. Good grief, people!

Of Damsels in Distress & Lawyers, Part II

Following up on yesterday’s flamethrowing broadside…This morning Sherry and I visited with her legal counsel, “Attorney B.”

Let’s just say that communication is important if you want people to know what you are thinking and doing. Sherry had been communicating, but had Attorney B?

Attorney B admitted that (it turned out) his files were incomplete, that there was no record of Sherry having paid her bills (she had), her contact information was inexplicably incorrect, all of his letters and document copies to her were going to the defendant (!) and not to her…man, it read like a Murphy’s Law of what can go wrong will go wrong with your case.

But, Attorney B apologized earnestly, kept his head on straight, didn’t get defensive, got his file straightened out, and is now moving forward. He called me (and Sherry) not long ago to apologize again and commit to making sure the case is properly handled going forward. Good guy. He impressed me, because so many professionals, including and maybe even especially attorneys, cannot accept or admit their own mistakes.

Attorney B, if someone asked me what you are like, I’d say you are a true professional. Mistakes happen, even bad ones. The question comes down to how they are rectified. It’s kind of scary for all of us to have reached this particular point in this particular case, but you got Sherry redirected in the right direction. You ate your humble crow pie like a man. Frankly, you’re an inspiration to me, a guy who has to eat humble crow pie more than your average dude because of my own gregarious and informal personality.

The nice ending to this is that Sherry goes home after a long week of working hard, snuggles up with her man and a glass of wine, and can rest easier, knowing that her advocates are going to bat for her and making headway. Three cheers to good people all around.

Now for my own glass of wine….