An auction preview can be a noisy social affair. Let the party go on around you. The best approach to auction buying is to play it cool. You are there to score valuable treasure. The value you place on a given item is important information. Success can depend on not telegraphing it all over the room.
The typical auction house will have all merchandise visible, usually on various tables or in display cases. Close inspection is normally possible. Examine everything with an eye to putting an upper limit on what you are willing to pay for a given object. If in the process you come across something you just have to have, in superb condition and rarer than air on the moon, DO NOT REACT! Words like “wow”, “oh my God” and the like are verboten. Just put the item down like it was simply another worn out old thing and move along. Maybe even go and gush over something gaudy and tasteless that you wouldn’t take on a bet. Chances are someone else will have spotted the treasure. Let the other pirates find their own “X” marking the spot.
Having spotted your quarry it is time to examine the lay of the land. Sitting at the back of the room is good strategic positioning. It’s like holding the high ground. Remember to use subtle bidding signals. You are hiding in plain sight but you get busted when the runners bring your purchase to you. Too late, the auctioneer has already shouted the magic word -“SOLD!”
During the bidding I like to bid in rapid succession. Let somebody else take the first bid. Immediately get in on the bidding as soon as it takes off in earnest. Keep in mind that you may be bidding against several competitors. As soon as the auctioneer has taken a bid, flash your signal. This is where the pace can really pick up unless the auctioneer deliberately slows things down. This seldom happens. As the bid price goes up heads will start to swivel all around the room. Everybody wants to know who mister confident is. Many people will jump to the conclusion that a determined buyer is in the room. There is, it’s you.
While previewing tray lots at an auction house I spotted one with a jumble of drafting tools and a couple of okay but not spectacular slide rules There was also a very interesting non-descript black instrument case about eighteen inches long. I could just about swear that thing was giving off visible vibrations. I asked a runner to see the tray. I casually looked over various items, deliberately not making a bee line for the case. There were other dealers right next to me examing things and I tried to appear dismissive towards what I was looking at.
It was easy to estimate the worth of the individual tools and instruments getting a running total in my mind. I had discovered in the past that slide rules were a good niche market and readily salable on eBay. The tray, thus far, was worth an easy $30.00 total so I didn’t want spend more than $10.00 at most. When I got to the instrument case the situation became more interesting. It was a plain paper covered case typical for old drafting tools, slide rules, navigation instruments, etc. It opened at the ends and withdrew a wooden slide rule with shellacked paper scales. This baby was old and it was in very good condition. It’s not easy to come up with a value on something like that unless you’ve seen it on sale before. What I was sure of was that it was desirable to the tune of several hundred bucks. I was a little strapped and had about $50.00 on me if I was willing to fore-go lunch.
Buzzing on high frequency, I took my seat and waited for the auction to begin. I didn’t sit in back for this one. Instead I sat where I could watch the tray to see if it attracted a lot of attention. It didn’t. The runner had placed it back on the table which was nicely crowded that day with a pretty normal assortment of oldish things. Nice enough but dead common. The star items that everyone in the room were certain to fight over were on the next table and in display cases around the room. I only saw one other person examine the tray. He didn’t check out the instrument case but instead took a seat two rows in front of me and slightly to one side.
When the tray finally reached the block the auctioneer briefly described the contents. Just like the other guy he never took the slide rule out of it’s case. Had he done so I know other dealers in the room who would have taken notice. Wooden instruments with paper scales equal collector money in anyone’s antique shop. The bidding was offered at twenty dollars with no takers. It went all the way down to fifty cents before someone took the bid. I countered at a dollar and then the gentleman in front of me took up the bid running it up fifty cents and then a dollar per bid. I signaled my bid as soon as I could with subtle nods of my head. The other guy could tell by the auctioneers gaze that his competition was somewhere behind him. He kept trying to turn his head just enough to spot me but his counter bidding slowed quickly as he lost heart for the game. the whole thing took less time that it takes to tell this story. I walked away with my treasure trove for seven dollars.
I really expected to have a tougher time of it than that. I didn’t even stay for the whole auction. I was too keyed up and besides I could afford lunch. Giving the slide rule a close examination at home I found it to be in beautiful condition with markings dating it to 1899, manufactured in Philadelphia. It was a perfect eBay item. The loose tools on the tray went for about $40.00. The slide rule netted $800.00. Not a bad score and the entire episode was a thrill for me from beginning to end.
I’m not saying that you run into those special moments everyday. Maybe that’s a good thing. I wouldn’t want something that tasty to go stale. Just remember that you can pick up some hot merchandise by playing it cool.