Wednesday, September 14, 2011


Not so long ago, it was advantageous to attend an auction in order to do well at it.  Only then could you get the best price; could you watch the other bidders and decide whether you could compete with them or not; could you see an opportunity and jump in to grab a bargain.

Not so long ago, if you stayed at the auction to the very end – long after others in the room had spent their allotted funds or gotten what they wanted – you often found that there were so few left in the “competition” that you were able to win many prizes on a small budget.

Not so long ago, knowledge could mean the difference between success and failure.  Once, for example, as the only ones at an auction who could read German, we scored a fabulous book which no one else in the room could know was fabulous!

Not so long ago, happy chance could mean the difference between victory and defeat, between a bargain and paying top dollar.  At one auction, somehow, the other bidders didn’t make the connection that Henry George Wells was H.G. Wells, so I was able to walk off with a manuscript for half of what I’d expected to pay.

Not so long ago, attending an auction was like participating in an interactive-theatrical event, with the excitement and the anticipation and the unexpected all unfolding as part of a drama.

No longer.

At a big New York City auction yesterday, I felt that “not so long ago” was very long ago, indeed, and that everything I’d known about auctions was no longer true.

Now, everyone in the room knows everything:  if they hadn’t already “googled” it, they are busy on their “smart phones” getting the information then and there.

Now, you have huge numbers of invisible bidders from all over the world bidding against you, not just by phone, but also via the Internet! 

Now, you can’t see most of your competitors, so you don’t know whether they are knowledgeable bidders or just rich folk who are used to getting whatever they want at whatever the price; you don’t know whether they’re bidding from Paris or from around the corner; you don’t know whether they’re buying for resale or for themselves.

Now, there is no advantage – none! – to being in the auction room, as the internet bidders have become the preferred ones. 

Yesterday’s auction was held up several times – once for about 40 minutes! – in order to accommodate a slow or failing internet feed.  When the bidders in the room grumbled about this, we were admonished by the auctioneer that these were “serious” bidders and that the “house” just “couldn’t go on without them.” Someone shouted, “We’re serious bidders, too.”  But all that got for us were some pastries, as we continued to wait….

Over and over again, the internet bidders were given preference over the bidders in the room.  Whereas we in the room were pressured into making quick and sometimes hasty decisions –

“Fair Warning:  Going Once, Twice, Sold” –

the Internet bidders were told,

“Fair Warning:  Going Once ………….. Going Twice…………. Are you sure?…………….  Fair Warning:  Going Once………. Going Twice………” 

You get the picture.

The prices were incredibly, sometimes laughably high, and the “professionals” in the room kept shaking their heads in amazement.  (And aren’t we in a recession?  Aren’t we supposed to be getting these things for a song now?)

The internet bidders seemed to have limited knowledge and unlimited funds.  And the bidders in the room served the auction house well by bidding up items before dropping out and leaving the field to the internet ones; then we [with our pastries] got to listen silently as these invisible bidders bid against one another:   Fair Warning:  Going Once……….. Going Twice……….. Are you sure….?

Not surprisingly, the only items that sold for amounts below their estimates were the ones on which no one in the room bid against their internet competitors.  Loud complaints were expressed as the people in the room made their way out the door at the auction’s end.

I was hot and tired and disappointed, but I’d always chided myself for not attending these auctions, and now I’d learned an important lesson:  I don’t have to take a 3-hour trip into Manhattan; I don’t have to deal with the traffic and the noise and the heat of the city; I don’t have to worry about finding a cab or getting a good seat at the auction. 

Instead of being in the auction house and bidding up the prices for them, I can claim the internet bidder’s advantage and do it all from the comfort of my living room.  And I will. 

Fair Warning.


Adam S. said...

Hah! How the times have changed since your auction house. I still have fond memories of earning $10 for a night of running up and down the aisles and helping folks carry their books to nearby cars. Did you not purchase anything at the auction then?

Marash Girl said...

All this time, Marash Girl [] has felt guilty because she has avoided auctions for the stress of it all. Now that stress seems to have gone over the top. Doubt looms large that any auction, live or on the internet, will ever hear Marash Girl's voice or see Marash Girl's hand raised into the air. And thanks to Helen, the guilt has dissipated forever! said...

Adam: I'd forgotten about the Berkshire/Bibliofind Book Auctions we had! So much work! That seems light years away! Yes, everything has changed -- including you! said...

To answer your other question, Adam: of course I did manage to buy a few things.... I will share my treasures another time.

Anonymous said...

Ester said...

This is a great description of
an Auction. All the Auctions
are frustating, but I am glad
You did it so I had a chance
to see You.

P. J. Grath said...

Helen, here's another bookseller happy to shed guilt over NOT going to auctions. I've also taken to attending some book sales on the last day, when there are no shoving crowds and I find little overlooked gems waiting just for me. said...

Isn't it amazing, Pamela, how much can be over-looked, no matter how many [knowledgeable] people have been there before you?