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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.

First World Problem: Antique Arms Collectors Now Face Mostly Fakes

This headline is probably ho-hum to most people, at best.

To others, it is a “here we go again, another whine-fest by history buffs who spend their money badly on old rusty junk.”

But if you are indeed a history buff with a penchant for old weapons, both edged and those that go BOOM, you may be interested in this post.

My opinion is that most antique weapons collectors are facing an overwhelming amount of fakes.

Much more so with Japanese swords, so let’s discuss them first.

Used to be that finding a Gendaito blade was unusual; maybe one or two a year. Now, you go on eBay and find the same several sellers conveying dozens of them annually. Wakizashis, katanas, even various sized dirks and tantos etc.

These must all be fakes, as there simply were not this many Gendaito blades in existence before Chinese smiths began to create them in about 2011.  Having watched these counterfeits move at an ever brisker pace, I simply feel sad. At some point the uninformed collectors will discover their money has been taken for what is a very good reproduction that is probably worth a thousand bucks, simply because it is that good of a copy. But it ain’t real.

Smith-made (hand made art blades) Shinto blades also fall into this counterfeiting scam by the hundreds annually. Again, there simply were not as many of these blades surviving WWII as there are now for sale on eBay.

With guns, it is harder to fake than a sword, because a gun is obviously a gun. A Winchester 1873 is a Winchester 1873, and its condition usually dictates its value.

What makes some gun values go crazy high are rare or historic marks (the ubiquitous spurious stage coach markings on rabbit eared double shotguns being the best example), which can be easily faked by anyone with good control of a metal punch. This is true fakery and it is an area most collectors know about and do more diligence about.

But let’s talk about the area where it is harder to see what has happened, and harder to call it fakery, though it is: The collectible antique sporting rifles.

Demand is high for antique sporting rifles, because their modern day equivalents cost about $35,000 to start and easily get to $100,000 and much, much higher. So in that context, it “makes sense” to pay $5,000 to $20,000 for an antique sporting firearm that functions as it should, rather than several times that amount for a brand new one that goes BOOM just like or nearly like the old one.

Antique sporting rifles are getting lots and lots of makeovers, both in England and here in America. They are marketed at auction and on websites as having been “period upgraded” or “period refurbished” (say from the 1870s to 1930s), when in fact they were very recently “tarted up” by a gunsmith to heighten their attractiveness to unknowing, unquestioning collectors.

I recently purchased – and immediately returned – such a rifle.

Oh it was a rare dandy, and looking past the hyperbole on the well-known seller’s website, which included an obviously fraudulent claim of “original condition,” there was still a fine gun that could take an American bison or a grizzly. If it worked the simple way a rifle should work, it was the gun of a lifetime. In a rare, hard-hitting caliber that I wanted.

So, I busted a move on it.

After joking on the phone with the salesman about the obviously fake claims of original condition, the seller and I eventually reached agreement on price, and the gun arrived in a couple days. Right out of its original 1895 leather and brass case with the original owner’s name and military rank on it (God, what a case!), the red flags were popping up: Improperly refinished wood had pulled the stock away from the receiver, leaving the stock to accept the heavy recoil on only one side.This meant the stock would crack soon after use.

A punch mark on the barrel lump was testimony to the cheap and meaningless effort to temporarily tighten the otherwise loose action. The list of el cheapo work went on. Yes, the bores were immaculate, but the fact is that this gun had been recently “tarted up” for re-sale, and it had been worn down quite a bit recently. Worn down more by the nature of its heavy caliber than by any misuse by previous owners.

Had the seller simply disclosed these facts, I might have made a more informed decision, and he would have received less money. We would have had full disclosure and an honest exchange. But within 48 hours of receiving it, I drove the gun all the way back to the sales room, three hours away, where the sales manager and the business owner tried to talk me out of the return. The refund check arrived ten days later, with none of the additional costs I incurred like shipping, transfer, gunsmith evaluation etc. They knew full well what had been done to that gun, and they simply got caught, and they punished me by withholding cash they should have covered.

This is one of the big names in high end gun sales.

Today I am looking at another uncommon rifle on a well known auction site. The gun has clearly been recently overhauled for re-sale. The wood finish is as bright and shiny as the new wood floor in a brand new home. The metal finishes look like they were done weeks ago, and not the 117 years ago that is the actual age of the gun. Yet it is marketed as having a “period” refurbish. Rubbish! Nonsense! Buyer be super aware!

This is not total fakery, as no fake numbers or markings have been punched into the metal or wood. Custer did not purportedly grasp this gun as he fell at the Little Big Horn.

Instead, until a few months ago, this gun’s metal parts were probably a mix of silvered and plum finishes, the welcome, honest patinas of hundreds of days afield in India or Africa, or the Scottish Highlands, chasing big game in the hands of a British, Indian, or Scottish Man of Importance. Until months ago, the wood probably looked like hell, was beat to hell, dented, dinged, and scratched, each a story in itself. Not any more! Now it looks so fake and shiny it about blinds the eye.

Shame, too, because under the fakery is a really cool gun.

Apparently the sellers believe that hiring “gunsmiths” to do quick and dirty upgrades to these collectible old sporting arms is more important than selling the actual honest gun, with its actual original wear and condition.

This means the sellers have gullible buyers who ascribe too much weight to new and fresh appearance, when the opposite is true: An original condition gun that has not been butchered or fooled with by a modern day “gunsmith” is actually more valuable.

The key to fending off the faking is educating new gun collectors and buyers to understand this fact: Fresh, new looking antique guns have been shined up to turn them into shiny objects. Don’t be a foolish fish and bite on them, unless you recognize a) what they are, and b) there are probably problems covered up by the new “improvements” that would have been addressed 100 years ago, but are now papered over, and thus, you are not getting what you paid for.

And as for the Japanese swords out there on eBay, man, what can be said? Be super wary. Ask yourself simple questions about production numbers, survivor numbers, and then answer your own question: How on earth is this one seller repeatedly finding so many of these should-be rare swords? Is every American veteran selling his prized Japanese sword to just these few dealers?

You know the answers to these questions. Run away, and hold on to your money.

In closing, buyer beware. Because there are gullible collectors willing to part with their money, there are unscrupulous sellers willing to sell them things that simply cannot be true. It behooves the smart man to ask the simple questions before biting.

Good luck and be patient!