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Sunday, April 21

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I've gotten a couple of emails from people asking about auctions. Auctions can be wonderful places to score some antiques but they do have their pitfalls.

Hi Ron,
When I was visiting my mom in Indiana we went to a local auction. My mom really wanted a nice old oak dresser that was up for auction. When the bidding started, my mom was holding up her number to bid. The auctioneer kept raising the prices even though I didn't see anyone else but my mom bidding on the dresser. She ended up buying the dresser for twice the amount she wanted to pay for it. We asked the lady at the checkout what was going on. She said someone else must have really wanted that dresser and we were "lucky" to have won it. I still can't help but feel like we were ripped off. What happened?

Alyissa in Des Plaines

Well, there's a couple of things that could have happened. First, you may have actually been ripped off. Unscrupulous auctioneers sometimes will "run up" an amateur bidder by using a "ghost bidder." You're basically bidding against no one but yourself. Here's an example. I was at an auction bidding on an Evil Knievel pinball machine. The rest of the crowd was much older and had no interest in the machine. The auctioneer started the bidding at $50, I raised my number and he pointed at me, acknowledging my bid. He then pointed at the back of the room and took another bid for $100. The people who were standing in the back of the room were all looking at each other with a look of, "I didn't bid. Did you bid?" Right then I realized what was up. The auctioneer knew I was going to walk away with the pinball machine without anyone else bidding on it. I was going to get a real bargain. He decided to make me pay more by using a ghost bidder to run me up. The bidding got to $200 and I quit. The auctioneer looked at me and actually said, "One more bid and I think you'll get it, son." I walked out. I never went back.

Many times this trick isn't as obvious. Some auctioneers have "shill bidders." There buyers are only at the auction to up bidding. They're friends of the auctioneer who bid on items to make sure the auction house gets more money for the items.

These are the scams, but there are legitimate reasons for what may have happened to Alyissa. If someone wants to put a bid on something at an auction but cannot attend the auction, they can leave what's known as an "absentee bid." They give you a bidder's number and you tell the auctioneer the highest price you'll bid for the item or items you want. He then writes down your bid and bidder's number on a card. When the item comes up for sale, he looks at the card and bids for you. A good auctioneer will hold the card up for everyone to see while the bidding is taking place. A bad auctioneer just makes it look like ghost bidding is taking place.

The last thing that may have happened is someone pulled what I like to call a "Charles" on you. Charles is a dealer I know who attends every auction in the city. He is one of the most knowledgeable dealers I've ever met. A few years ago he ran into a problem where other dealers were keeping a close eye on what he was bidding on. The other dealers would then jump in on the bidding, figuring it must be good if Charles was bidding on it. These dealers started costing him a lot of money, so he switched tactics. He got with the auctioneer and told them to watch is right index finger. If he wiggled it, he was bidding. The auctioneers were happy to work with Charles because he bought so much stuff from them. Now Charles sits in the front row, wiggles his finger all auction long and no one's the wiser.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not down on auctions. You can really get some amazing finds at auctions. The more you know, the better the odds are that you'll be able to spend less and get more. You really don't want to end up in Alyissa's situation. Ghosts can get really expensive.

If you have any questions about antiques or auctions email me at I try to answer every email I receive.

This week's featured auction:

Bowling Alley and Bingo Hall Auction
Tuesday, July 26th, 10:30am
Turners Bingo, Bowling and Gymnasium Center
6625 w. Belmont Ave Chicago

It's a bowling alley. It's a bingo hall. It's a gymnasium. It's all up for auction. As Chicago turns into one giant condo complex, businesses like the Turner Bowl are disappearing at an alarming rate. Here's your chance to own a piece Chicago history before the wrecking ball swings. Everything is for sale and I mean everything. The wood bowling lanes (they make great table tops), hundreds of bowling pins and lots of smelly old bowling shoes (for you fetishists out there). This is going to be a huge auction.

The auction preview begins at 8:30am. Get there early to inspect your future treasures. Bring a tape measure to see if that Bingo King Autotronic 7000 will actually fit in your living room. Before the auction starts, go sign in and get a bidders number. You'll need a $200 deposit — you get it back if you don't buy anything. At these auctions, after the auctioneer says "sold," you own it. If someone else walks out the door with your it, that's your problem, not the auctioneer's. The best advice comes from an old auctioneer I know who tells his customers. "Keep an eye on what you buy." You're also expected to remove everything you buy as soon as the auction is over.

Good luck bidding, don't buy too much and remember, the average automobile can only safely hold about 85 bowling pins.

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About the Author(s)

Ron Slattery is a collector of interesting junk and other wonderment. You can visit him at and

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