All’s fair in love, war—and auctions?

By Jesse Robitaille

In some ways, it’s a game of chicken.

In other ways, it’s more like war: bidding is a fast-paced affair with only one real winner (but at least there’s no potential for mutually assured destruction).

Sometimes, the stakes are high. Is that the freshest, finest, most fault-free stamp you’ve ever seen? Is this the first time anyone in the last decade or more has been able to acquire that unique cover?

At what point does a bid become absurdly high? Sometimes, the increments can be $1,000 or higher—another bid, another huge sum of money potentially gone because a challenger wants that stamp or cover as badly as you do. To limit foolish bravado, most bidders predetermine a firm financial limit they’re willing to reach but not exceed when bidding for an item.

But despite the increments, the proceedings are an exciting process: bidding is usually over and done with swiftly, with a burst of offers put forth in mere seconds. After all, if you wait too long, the hammer falls and the bidding ends. Before you know it, the chaos is over, and the next item is ready to cross the block.

Gone, for the most part, are the days of bidding wars taking place on the floor. Today, the battleground is most often the Internet (but sometimes the phone and even the mail). In decades past, however, bidders would play with distinct tactics from the floor. I’ve heard stories of bidders sitting in the front row so only the auctioneer can see their bids—or moving to the very back for a similar level of anonymity, one that allows you to see who’s bidding against you. These strategies have taken a backseat in the 21st century while others have come to the fore.

Did you know some online bidders use “sniping software” to stifle the competition by placing stealthy, perfectly timed bids? This software will place your bid in the final second of an auction, cutting back on (but not entirely limiting) other bidders’ chances to win. While it’s allowed on eBay, sniping is controversial among collectors—some denounce it while others are quick to point no rules are being broken.

What do you think of sniping, anyways?

When it comes to auctions, it’s not just high stakes for bidders—the auction business is itself a competitive game. When an item fails to meet its estimate, it can look bad for the auctioneer and its consignors (and its potential future consignors). If an auction house misses the mark on selling a significant item – let’s say a relatively rare stamp goes for half its estimate or is “burned,” meaning it fails to meet its reserve price – the results for the auctioneer can be unfavourable.

After all, there are two sides to every “good deal.”

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