Becoming a Better Bidder, Part 1

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I get questions and comments from auction bidders on a regular basis. Along with dozens of others, these include, “Why didn’t I get the item I was trying to bid on? Why did someone else get it for the same amount I bid? I would have paid that for it!” 

Participating as both a buyer and seller, I have been around auctions my entire life. Originally starting off as general help at a livestock auction when young and then graduating to working as a ringman, I am now a licensed auctioneer and own an auction company. I have seen a little bit of everything when it comes to an auction and the nuances involved.

One thing for sure, the auction world has changed a lot since the introduction of the Internet. Now there are more folks taking part in online auctions than at live events. I will address various forms of bidding here with the hope you can gain some useful tidbits that can be used to your advantage when bidding at an auction.

First off are some basics. Most probably already know this but let’s go over the ways to bid. There is live bidding, phone bidding, absentee bidding, proxy bidding, and online there is live and absentee bidding. 

Live bidding is just that—you are sitting in the crowd in front of an auctioneer. Phone bidding is when you are telling a representative from the auction house via phone what to bid as the auctioneer sells the item. Absentee bidding is leaving a “max” or maximum bid that you are willing to go up to online or through an auction house representative or even by email. Proxy bidding is when you get someone else to bid on your behalf. On the Internet, you generally can bid in real time, as the auction is taking place, or absentee as stated above.

The first rule of buying at an auction is to have a good idea of what you are bidding on. Preview, preview, preview! If online, look closely at the pictures. Ask questions ahead of time until you are comfortable. If you buy an item and it is not what you expected, it is your own fault (except in the case of misrepresentation by the auction house or seller, which is another subject). Do not assume anything. Look items over well and get a pre-determined idea of value. You should always have a dollar amount in mind and not go over that amount when bidding—unless it is a one of a kind item or something you really, really want. 

Find out what the Buyer’s premium, taxes and any other fees such as shipping and handling might be. Calculate that into the amount you are willing to pay. Those fees can vary from auction to auction and from region to region, but pretty much any auction is going to charge them in some manner or another. You should also know where the auctioneer is at in the bidding process and what he is asking for in terms of the next dollar amount. It is your responsibility to know what lot they are on and what amount is being asked. Pay attention. Then be ready to bid up to the amount you had in mind.

Here are some pointers for various forms of bidding. When you are live bidding, bid visibly with your card, paddle or hand. “Sneak” bids can easily be missed by the auction crew. Also, do not hesitate. There are people out there— I have even seen videos on the subject—who coach bidders to wait until the last minute, right before the auctioneer says “SOLD,” to raise their hands and bid. There are several theories behind this, most of which do not hold water and they can be problematic for bidders. For one, the auctioneers or ringmen can miss your bid because they do not think you are interested in this lot. Right or wrong, they tend to focus on those who have been bidding on that lot.

Even if your strategy is to not show much excitement, at least raise your hand once or twice early on so you are on their radar. If you really want an item, do not wait till the last minute to bid—it may be too late. Also, many auctioneers do not give a “fair warning” call. They ask for and take bids until they figure everyone is done bidding, and then they “drop the hammer.” And even if they have been giving a fair warning call all day, it is not required. So if the auctioneer drops the hammer and you did not get your bid in because you were waiting, it is your own fault for missing out. You took that risk. 

Another side effect of using the strategy of always waiting till the last minute to bid is that you can aggravate the auction crew and attendees. They realize you are playing games and trying to break up the flow of the auction. You will not receive any preferential treatment by aggravating folks. 

Another thing I have seen that is not recommended is to raise your hand in the air when you really want an item and just leave it up there to make sure you get the item, no matter what. However, by letting everyone in the room know you want something, no matter the cost, you can wind up paying more than you should. Unscrupulous auctioneers and ringmen may run you up. Also, there could be folks in the crowd who are ornery and will bid against you just to make you pay more out of meanness. Yes, there are people like that at most auctions.

Bid only as necessary when you are outbid. If you are not sure who has the bid, just ask. Point towards yourself in a questioning manner and either the ringman or auctioneer will see you and affirm whether you have the bid or not at that moment. Raise your hand in a steady manner only when it is your turn—that is the best way. All of the various games played generally have no bearing on the end result, anyway. Items are going to bring what they are going to bring (within a few dollars) whether you are messing with the auctioneer and other bidders or not. All you accomplish when playing games is to alienate others.

When bidding on the phone, the same applies as above. Also, make sure you have a good connection and speak loudly. The auction staff on the other end has a lot going on and it is loud so do not make it hard for them to understand or hear you. Be punctual. Know when the item(s) you are interested in are going to sell (within a few minutes) and be ready ahead of time. Most auctions will not wait more than a few moments to get a phone bidder on the line.

Next issue, I’ll talk about absentee and Internet bidding.

Jim Olson is a published author, historian and co-owner of historic Western Trading Post in Casa Grande, AZ, that traces its roots back to 1877! Visit to see what it offers. See ad with Auction dates on page 8.

Jim Olson © 2019

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