Tip o’ the Week 471 – Buying stuff at auction


clip_image002As the web turns 30 and its role in the End Of the World As We Know It starts to become more clear, it’s worth reflecting on how the technology has disrupted more traditional businesses, sometimes ironically turning them on their head before turning into them.

One literally dusty and old-school business that is reinventing its traditional method, is that of the auction house. As any Brit hooked on Bargain Hunt or Cash in the Attic might attest, the auctioneer will let any amount of old toot pass under their gavel on the basis that they’re making some commission from the seller and gathering a not-insubstantial buyer’s premium from the successful bidder, too.

ToW#359 covered auctions a while ago, and covered some strategies in making sure you get the best deal.

It seems that the auction market is growing, and not just in high value art or fancy motoring. If you go to the saleroom of a bricks & mortar auctioneer these days, there is likely to be at least as much bidding action coming in online as there is in the room, but it’s all dealt with in real-time by a real-life master of the hammer, even if at some places and times nobody knows what they’re actually saying.

So, as well as perusing the ‘Bay for used stuff to fill your abode, and looking on Gumtree / Craigslist for clutter that’s not only cheap but nearby, it’s worth searching on some sites who provide aggregation services to real auctioneers, listing their catalogues online and providing real-time online bidding too. For a small fee, of course. Examples include The Saleroom, EasyLiveAuctions, iBidder or Invaluable.

You may want to look for your quarry on any one – or all – of the platforms, find an item you like, have a look at the photos etc, then go straight to the auctioneer’s own website and make a commission bid. These are entered on your behalf by the auction house, supposedly only high enough to win the auction unless you’re outbid. In practice, if you put a commission bid of £200 for something because you can’t attend in person or be online live to watch & interact with the auction, then be prepared to secure the item for £200... plus maybe 28% buyers premium, and a hefty charge for post and packaging if you’re not nearby enough to collect in person. Still, you might save the 6% or so that an aggregator would charge on top.

In truth, buying most things at auction is a bad idea: there’s little to no legal protection and if the thing you’ve bought it a dud, then it’s on your head to fix it. Many bidders at auctions are dealers themselves, and they’ll have a canny eye for what to get and what to avoid – and their “good” stuff will end up in their antique shop, with a 100% mark-up, or it’ll be cursorily cleaned up and shoved on eBay.

You’d be better off finding the people directly with things to sell if you can, or ferret around in a charity shop; for some goods, like watches, there are free aggregators (the likes of WatchRecon or WatchPatrol) who scrape all of the private “for sale” ads and let you deal directly with the vendor, rather than going through a middleman like an auctioneer or eBay. For cars, there are both free and paid-for advert platforms (eg ClassicCarsForSale, PistonHeads) that make it easy to find either the dealer or private owner who’s selling up.

clip_image003Selling via auction doesn’t make too much sense a lot of the time, either – you’ll pay fees and you’ll be reliant on them bothering to describe and photograph your item properly, and put some effort into talking it up on the day.

Here’s an example of a consignment to an auctioneer – a box of books, with titles like “A Fortune in your Attic” or “Treasures in your Home”.

The box sold for £2.

So, if you’re buying cheap rubbish, then don’t think twice about which platform you use.

If you’re buying Paul Newmans, though, it could even be worth flying in and doing it in person.

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