04th March 2009
I was at a book auction in Yorkshire yesterday when suddenly the fear of God began creeping up on me as I spotted several big changes taking place at my favourite saleroom in the year or so since I last attended one of their auctions.
The biggest change, the one that made me feel certain I’d never visit this auction house again, was the sight of bids being taken over the Internet, compared to usually bids being made by people in the room or by telephone to auction representatives.
My problem started with four or five hundred book lots that typically precede postcard sales, during which time I grew ever more edgy as prices reached way beyond auctioneers’ estimates, all because of people bidding online. Internet bids came in from all over the world for some of those books and led to long delays after room bids finished and auctioneers waited for last offers from online bidders. Sometimes it took minutes between a final room bid taking place and the auctioneer deciding enough time had elapsed for online bidders to share in the action. Those few minutes are like waiting for paint to dry and if I didn’t have blood pressure problems already, I certainly would after yesterday’s new Internet bidding experience. In short I lost several books I really thought I’d won only to be outbid a few minutes after placing my final offer.
My main worry was losing postcards I was desperate to have, to some plonker in some other country who has just discovered my favourite auction house, the one responsible for almost my entire eBay income.
As it happened, I need not have worried about all this new-fangled technology, because few bids were actually placed for postcard lots by online bidders, which was very strange given some amazing international postcards and ephemera lots being auctioned on the day.
The reason, it turned out, that people are prepared to bid for books and many other individual products online, even at two or three thousand pounds a time, was solely because one item or a tiny bundle can easily be displayed in the auction catalogue both on and off the Internet. Bidders get a good idea of the condition and appearance of a solitary item, or a few, from a quality photographic illustration. For postcards, though, where hundreds or even thousands exist alongside one another in albums or boxes, there’s no way for auctioneers to display more than a tiny handful of the contents of individual lots. It simply requires too much time and hosting space to photograph and illustrate more than ten or twenty postcards each time. Much the same time and energy goes into illustrating big bundle auction lots in tea chests, for example, which will almost certainly be safe from online bidders.
Unexpectedly, my day ended well, not just because I got all the postcard lots I wanted at much less than I was prepared to pay, but because the last thing I saw of auction staff was a lot of flapping over telephone complaints from online bidders whose offers still failed to meet the two minute waiting period before the auctioneer’s gavel went down.
There’s no doubt about it: Internet bidding is still very slow and very uncertain compared to jumping up and down to get the auctioneer’s attention. And long may it continue.
Which brings me to two things you can learn from my experience:
* If your chosen lots are individual items with good quality catalogue illustrations, expect lots of online bidders and be prepared for auctions to sometimes last much longer than in pre-Internet days. Yesterday’s auction, for example, with 400 plus lots, would normally begin at noon and end about 4.30pm and not 6pm as actually happened.
* If you’re not prepared to travel far, and you don’t want to spend hours waiting for absent bidders to make their offers online, if you’re happy with the illustrations provided for goods you’d like to buy, try telephone bidding instead.****** Publisher’s Note ******
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