Becoming a Better Bidder, Part 2

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In the previous column—Becoming a Better Bidder, Part 1—I talked about live and phone bidding at an auction. Now let’s look at hints for other types of bidding.

Absentee bidding is convenient and can generally be done in a couple of ways. One is to leave your maximum (or “max”) bid with the auction house ahead of time. The second is to go online and do it yourself if that is offered. 

When you really want an item if it goes for a certain amount or less, I recommend leaving a max bid ahead of time unless you can be at the auction in person. Even if you are watching the auction live on the Internet, you are still at risk when trying to bid in real time as the auction is happening. Too many things can go wrong. The Internet lag time can be 2 to 5 seconds (depending on yours and the auction house’s Internet speeds and various other factors). 

If you really want an item and are bidding online, leave a max bid ahead of time. That way, the computer system will bid on your behalf as necessary. The system will not let you raise your own bid and does not start out at your max bid. It is a safe way for you to say, “If that goes for $____ or less, I want to own it.” On most online bidding platforms, such as iCollector or Invaluable, etc., the auctioneer has no way of knowing what your max bid is. The system hides that dollar amount. This assures you that you will only pay as much as necessary to win the item, unless someone else bids higher than your max bid.

In the past, I have heard a few bidders complain about leaving absentee max bids directly with an auction house. They say things like, “Every time I leave a max bid, the item magically sells for my max bid or I think the auctioneer uses my bid to run the price up” or other negative comments. Let’s address that for a moment. First off, there are definitely a few unscrupulous auctions that run people up if they know what you are willing to bid. But I would say that is the exception and not the norm. 

However, if that is the case, you have two choices. First is to not deal with that auction house any longer. Period. The second is to look at it this way—you were willing to give a certain amount for the item anyhow so you got it for that amount. Great! Count it as a blessing you won the item! That is a more positive outlook. But odds are if the item went for your max bid or close to it that is because there are others out there who also knew the value of the item and had put in bids similar to yours.

Aside from a few places that may use your absentee bid in a self-serving manner, most auction houses are on the up-and-up. At our auctions, people leave absentee max bids with us all the time. We assign them a bidder number and enter them into the computer clerking system. That way, just as if an online bidder was to do it, the system will bid on their behalf as necessary until they either win the item or it goes beyond their max bid. Before computer automation, it was common to designate someone from the auction staff to proxy bid their behalf. I have seen places where the auctioneer also has a list and will audibly call the absentee bids as others bid against them. 

All of these work. We prefer the computer system because there is less room for human error or shenanigans. As I said, the “max” bid left ahead of time is the best way to get what you really want short of attending in person.

Now let’s address some of the most common questions or concerns presented by bidders. The most common one I get from online bidders is, “I left a max bid of $_____ and that is what it went for, but I did not get it. This happens periodically in a live auction format where bids are accepted by the auctioneer as they come in.

So, if you have the bid at $90 and the auctioneer is asking for $100 (and you left a $100 max bid), the computer does not let you raise your own bid (bid against yourself) and the auctioneer generally has no idea what your max bid is. So, if someone in the live audience crowd bids $100, the auctioneer acknowledges and accepts that bid. They are now winning at $100 (because it was their turn to bid). In this scenario, it was just bad luck their turn happened to fall on the same amount as your max bid. This kind of tie does not happen often, but when it does, it’s usually a “whose turn was it” kind of thing. At live auctions, you generally do not raise your own bid—other bidders do.

If the auction is strictly online —like an online timed auction, for example—then the computer system gives the bid to the earliest bidder who bid that amount. For example, if you left a $100 max bid and you now have the bid at $90 (assuming the increments are set at $10), then if someone else tries to bid $100, the computer will automatically accept your bid at $100 and reject theirs, giving them notice that someone else bid that amount already. But this does not work in live auctions because the auctioneer is accepting the bids as they come in.

A strategy I have used to help avoid tie situations like this is to go online before the auction and see where the winning bid is. Figure what your max bid is going to be and then count forward from where you are to see if that max bid would fall on someone else’s turn if bidding goes that far. For example, if the bid is now $10 and you are winning but are willing to bid up to $50, think like this: me $10, them $20: me $30, them $40: me $50! In this case, you win unless someone goes over $50. However, you may be at risk if you left a $40 or a $60 bid because that amount probably will not fall on your turn. There are a couple of rare scenarios that could still go against you but most of the time this will work.

Another complaint heard from online bidders is they were trying to bid and it got sold for less than they were trying to bid. Again, this goes back to the risk taken when trying to bid in real time online and waiting to bid. There is the lag factor between what you are watching and what is actually happening in the live auction. This is usually the cause of your higher bid not getting accepted. If you really want to bid online in real time, my best advice is to bid early, right after the lot opens. Remember, it takes a few seconds for the bid to get to the auctioneer so hesitation or a late bidding strategy is your enemy in online live bidding.

Another thing to watch out for when bidding online is assuming you have the bid. Remember, you do not have the winning bid until the auctioneer acknowledges you have the winning bid. The screen in front of you may say you had the bid because you bid what was being asked for but that computer is not the auctioneer. The auctioneer may accept another bid from another source. Most auctioneers go with whom they see or hear first. So if you and other bidders or online platforms are bidding the same thing at the same time, the auctioneer acknowledges the one he sees or hears first and takes that bid—even though your screen may tell you for a moment that you had it. Beware of this; pay attention to whose bid the auctioneer has accepted. 

Again, this goes back to the risk of trying to bid in real time, online. If you bid early enough, the screen should adjust after a moment and let you know if you are “out” because the clerk did not accept your bid. However, if it is too close to the closing of the lot, you may not get the notice in time.

Remember this—at pretty much any live auction—the auctioneer has final say. He is kind of like a referee. He calls it how he sees it and the decision is final. It is up to you to know where they are at and to get your bid presented in a timely manner. At our auction house, we have two Internet platforms and a live crowd going all at once so, potentially, there are bids coming in from three sources simultaneously. 

When the auctioneer accepts a bid, the others are “out.” So if iCollector (for example) said you were winning, but you did not, it was probably due to one of the scenarios listed above. Or it could have been a clerking error. Sometimes the clerk may hit the wrong button with your bid showing on it even though the auctioneer took that amount from someone else (in which case the clerk should have hit the button next to the one with your bid on it. So you can see how easy it is to make a temporary error). Usually, this is noticed right away and they correct it. But for a minute, it might have shown you were winning by mistake. 

Humans do make errors after all, especially when you put a clerk in a high stress situation like a fast paced auction. That is why I say the safest way to bid online is to leave max bids ahead of time. That way your bid shows up every time you are outbid and it does so immediately so you have a good chance of being recognized. The next best way to bid online is to bid early in the process. The later you bid in real time, the more risk you take of not getting your bid accepted in time. As mentioned, live auctions move rapidly.

Auctions can, and generally are, a fun experience where you can buy things at good prices. We all enjoy them. However, if you want to become a better bidder, it is important to know the rules and various nuances of the game. In closing, if you really want an item, know the value, know what you are willing to give for it and bid early—but not foolishly. 

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. 

Jim Olson © 2019

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