Many collectors and dealers buy at auction. Types of auctions vary widely and fill particular needs. In all cases it is the intent of the auctioneer to get the highest price for the owner of the property.

Some auction houses specialize in very narrow types of merchandise. For instance, there are auction firms that specialize in automobiles, heavy mechanical equipment, antiques, dolls, coins, toys, bottles, scientifica, railroadiana, insulators, etc.

The way auctions are conducted can widely vary. The most common type is where you go to a location to physically bid on items. Another common auction type is bidding through the mail or over the phone. I recently consigned an insulator to a mail in/phone-in type auction that specialized in insulators and telegraph equipment. In this auction I had two choices how I wanted the bidding to take place­­ by sealed or open bidding. In both cases the bidders could mail or phone in their bid. The sealed bid meant that only the auctioneer knew what the highest bid was and then awarded the item to the high bidder at the shut-off date. In open bidding the bidders are told what the highest bid is and can go over it to insure the purchase. I chose to go the open bid route, based on the track record of the auctioneer and did get top dollar out of the insulator.

Buying at auction can be a real experience. Auctioneers are like anyone else and integrity varies from very honest to very dishonest. Also, some auctioneers are very knowledgeable and others fairly ignorant on the merchandise they sell. The knowledgeable auctioneer will tend to get the best price for the property owner, while a buyer will often get a real steal from the ignorant auctioneer. If you are unfamiliar with an auctioneer, you should observe first before jumping in to bid. You should get comfortable with his cadence or chant, but more importantly, you need to see where he is getting his bids from.

I've seen auctioneers produce "phantom" bids­­ basically faking a bid to encourage the actual bidder to pay more for an item that he would otherwise. You do have the right to stop and ask the auctioneer who the previous bid was from. The auctioneer may not like slowing down an auction in this fashion but the honest ones will generally answer you while the dishonest one will likely ignore you.

There are some auctioneers that will start at the low end with a phantom bid in order to speed up the bidding process. You will discover this early in an auction and should be able to figure out only the initial bid is phantom. I don't have a problem with this unless the auctioneer consistently sets the initial bid at too high a level. Sometimes an auctioneer will have a friend or worker out in the crowd pushing bids up. This is the type of auction to walk away from.

Some auctioneers will have workers put in bids from people who phoned them in. Most of the time the auctioneer, when giving the rules at the beginning states that there may be some phoned bids. I've even been at an auction when an item in progress was being bid on by someone on the phone. If you leave a bid with an auctioneer, you should find out whether he kicks the bidding in at the level of your bids or starts the item with the first bid from the floor. Obviously, you want to compete with the other bidders with the hope of buying the item for less money than your limit.

I've experienced both ends of the spectrum with left bids. I once left a top bid of $50 and bought the item for $2.50. On the other end, I left a maximum bid only to have the auctioneer put me in at the next bid over the maximum I left.

Finding the right auction to go to can involve diligent looking or just dumb luck. Most local auctions are listed in local newspapers. Specific auctions are often advertised in magazines or other publications that specialize in that field. Local auctioneers will sometimes have flyers displayed in restaurants, hardware stores, etc. that will display such things. Some auctioneers maintain a mailing list for sending out handbills of future auctions. Some do this free and some charge. Almost all of the phone-in or mail in type auctions have a catalog that they charge for or require a stamped, self addressed envelope.

Picking an auctioneer to sell items you want to get rid of is also very challenging. Honesty is the first trait to consider. I know of an auctioneer that went into an estate stealing a number of items which later showed up in some of his auctions. Next, how good and knowledgeable is the auctioneer. Do they run a lively auction with a clearly understood cadence? Do they do a good job of advertising­­ getting the bigger crowds in the area? Do they help to get the items to the location of the auctions and what are the charges for doing so? Lastly and very important, what percentage does the auctioneer charge and who pays for the advertising and any necessary help? Don't be afraid to ask for referrals to talk to and be sure to follow up on them.

One last item that causes a lot of controversy is buyer's premiums. A buyer's premium is a percentage charge that a buyer pays on top of the bid price. As a buyer, I refuse to encourage such a practice. However, the seller may benefit if the buyer picks up some of the cost of the auctioneer. The auctioneer that recently sold my insulator charged me five percent and charged a buyer's premium of ten percent.

Antique Week newspaper has had an ongoing commentary on the pros and cons of buyer's premiums with most of the comments against. As with any auction, as a buyer, you should set your maximum buying price. Not doing so can create a lot of regret when buying something at too high a price because you got out of control in the heat of bidding. If there is a buyer's premium, you must deduct that from your bidding limit.

Auctions can be a lot of fun or your worst enemy. Being smart about your bidding will add to your enjoyment. Taking reference books to an auction is a good idea, but you don't want to share them with someone that may bid against you. I've gotten some fantastic bargains at auctions and still do. I always set a limit and rarely change it except for an occasional gamble.

Next month my discussion will center on telegraphic history and equipment. If you have any questions or comments to Jim Woods, Zephyr, PO Box 1, Galesburg, IL 61402 or e-mail to .

Last Modified: August 8, 1996

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