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    10 ways not to be a jerk at auctions

    My auction buddy overheard a regular bidder tell someone recently that when he went to his car one night after an auction, two of his tires had been flattened. This bidder is a quiet man with an antique shop in New Jersey, and he bids competitively and relentlessly.


    He sometimes pops into a sale, battle back and forth with the original bidder, jacking up the price, and then slips away. That doesn’t make him any friends on the auction floor. That night, he apparently made someone very angry.

    That got me to thinking about auction etiquette, the way we bidders treat each other. Since I’ve been going to auctions the past few years, I’ve met a lot of very nice people. Some will stop bidding on item if they see you’re particularly interested. This may sound like collusion (auction houses don’t like collusion), but we don’t conspire with each other beforehand. It’s more mutual respect for each other.

    I like vintage cameras, and some of the regulars will alert me to them. Auction houses routinely have several auctions going on at one time, and friends will let each other know when an item they want is coming up for bids in another room. Or they’ll bid on it for you.

    So, today, I’d like to offer some ways to gain respect and win friends at auctions:

    1. Don’t interrogate a bidder about an item and then bid against him/her. At an auction this week, one of a trio of expert art-glass buyers got into a tiff with a newcomer, a woman. At one point, we heard the newcomer shouting at the female expert, who appeared very calm. We were aghast; rarely does anyone get that loud. Later outside, I asked the female buyer about it (“I thought you were getting ready to kick her butt,” I said). She said she instigated the blowup because the newcomer had continuously asked her about pieces and then bid against her. She didn’t like being used, so like a woman, she handled it head-on. She could’ve just slashed the woman’s tires.


    2. Don’t bid if you don’t actually want the item. Minutes before, this same newcomer had bidded against me for a lot of lovely Blenko glass. The bid started at $5, I nodded yes. $7.50, she raised her hand yes. $10, I nodded. $12.50, she raised her hand. $15, I shook my head. Then the woman laughingly said to me, “I thought you were going to take the bid.” She was pushing up the bid for items she really did not want. And then she said, “I’ll sell them to you for $8.” Maybe I should’ve slashed her tires.

    3. Don’t steal from other buyers. Auctioneers repeatedly tell bidders not to take other people’s purchases. Bidders are routinely handed their items once they win a bid, and they sometimes stack them in a pile on the floor, in boxes or on tables. Sometimes, the dishonest among us take what they want. I always put my items in my car after each sale.

    4. Don’t steal from the auction house. Many times, an auctioneer will get ready to offer a group of items for bidding and realize that one piece is missing. Stolen.

    5. Don’t hide items from other bidders, or take items from one lot and tuck them into another lot that you plan to bid on. Each bid item gets a lot number that corresponds to an estate or consignment. Mixing lots is a no-no. This is a form of stealing. Most of the items at the mom-and-pop auction houses are so inexpensive that there’s no need to steal or hide them.  

    6. Don’t jump into a bid at the last minute. I hate that. It happened to me recently. I had chosen three black metal plant stands with wheels and was about to get them for $5 (I was raising my bid number for the auctioneer) when out of nowhere a woman yelled out for the next bid price. The auctioneer accepted her bid. I stopped bidding and walked away. The same has happened to my auction buddy. She got the item, but the other bidder told her, “I really didn’t want it.” Maybe she should’ve slashed his tires.

     7. Don’t disassemble lots to make your own. At one auction, a bidder took all the Ping putters out of a half-dozen bags of assorted golf clubs, creating a lot. Once the auctioneer realized what she had done, he chastised her. I out-bidded her and got the Pings.


    8. Don’t take other bidders’ boxes, newspapers or other wrapping materials. My auction buddy has seen buyers take other people’s items out of their boxes, place them on a table and take the boxes. She’s had people take newspapers (which she uses to wrap glass) out of her boxes and walk away with them.

    9. Do leave your toddlers at home, especially at auctions selling expensive glassware set out on tables. One auction house forbids children under age 12, but does not enforce the restriction.

    10. Don’t try to get the auctioneer to start a bid on an item you want before he’s gotten to it. Auctioneers have a set route to bid items on a table. If yours is at the end of the table, please wait. Telling the auctioneer “Do this next, I have to leave” won’t win you friends from those of us patiently waiting our turn. The smart auctioneer will kindly ignore you.

    A final thought: Auctioneers do play favorites, and you can spot them pretty easily. So if you lose out on an item to a favorite, don’t fret. Most likely, a similar item will come up again.

    The most important thing to remember at auctions is: “Be collegial.” And have fun.

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    1. Sherry,

      I liked this article. How about you do a piece on the auctioneers, their ‘secret’ hand signals and especially on phony telephone or online bids. I’ve been to auctions where the auctioneer will turn to their assistant and will state that there is a higher bid by a telephone customer, although the assistant is not on the phone. While it could be that someone submitted an absentee bid, it does not make that person a telephone bidder. Often there is no transparency or integrity.


      • Hi Sonny, there are some unscrupulous auctioneers (and by extension, auction houses that allow them to do it) and I have been to some. I used to go to one where the auctioneer would pull the next bid out of the air after each of my bids. I was new to the place, and didn’t realize what was going on. When I did, I got confirmation from a regular buyer at this auction house. I’ve also been to auction houses where owners bidded on their own items and the auctioneer allowed them to do so. I stopped visiting both of those places, something I would recommend to anyone who finds such dishonesty. I’ve found, though, that most auctioneers and auction houses I’ve visited are reputable and honest. It’s too their advantage to be so if they want repeat customers. I did write a blog post about how auctioneers are a little loose with their descriptions of items:
        Here’s another blog post about an auction where an item was sold and then the buyer was asked to return it:


    2. Yeah, I have to disagree with #6. If I know my limit and it’s above current bid, and other bidders start way below, I’ll wait till they tire out and then bring in “new money” when they’re about to sell. I don’t need to jump into the fray until the bid is past their max. It’s not rude at all, just good strategy. I would rather bid and buy, then bid and drop out.

      • Hi, I’m talking about those cases when the auctioneer is about to grant you the bid and someone jumps in. That’s a spoiler, not someone like yourself who actually wants the item. I also have an issue with buyers who will allow an item to get to a $1 bid, the auctioneer is getting ready to pass it, you decide to take it and then all of a sudden someone else just has to have it. So now that $1 item that no one wanted is $12.

    3. Hello Sherry- Just discovering your site. RE: the 10 ways ….post item #6. Jumping a bid is totally acceptable, mind you I’m not talking about $20.00 items. If I think I’ve got a customer for an item and the bid is falling within the “I can make a profit” range I will jump in no matter how late in the bid.

      • Hi. I agree it’s acceptable. That was a tongue-in-cheek “don’t,” although it does perturb me when folks jump in at the last minute. I even do it sometimes. What bothers me is when they jump in when they really don’t want the item – as in the cases I mentioned. That’s just bad sportsmanship.


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