Jessie Raymond: Auction goers bid adieu to reason

Last weekend, I finally attended my first auction. I came home without any of the antiques I saw there, but with a deeper understanding of the human psyche. That’s even better, because (a) it was free and (b) I don’t have to dust it.
I’d been wanting to go for years because I love old, timeworn things (insert gratuitous husband joke here) and I had a little money to spend. But I was nervous going in. My prior knowledge of auctions came exclusively from sitcoms, so I worried there was a good chance that I’d wave a fly out of my face and accidentally end up paying $4,000 for a painting of dogs playing poker. I sat on my hands just in case.
I arrived early to find myself among a crowd of people, mostly antiques dealers, who all seemed to know each other. They chatted amiably, giving no indication that in only a few minutes they would be fighting like wolverines to snatch the best items out from under each other.
Following the lead of those around me, I got myself a numbered wooden paddle. I wasn’t sure what to do with it — maybe swat my neighbor on the butt, or whip it at the auctioneer when I wanted to bid? (Turns out, you just raise it in the air to get his attention. Simple yet elegant.)
I caught on to the format pretty quickly: The auctioneer points to an antique, tosses out a starting price and sees if anyone will bid. If people do, he keeps raising the price until only one person is left. Sold to the highest bidder.
This sounded easy, but it didn’t explain how my fellow auction-goers determined an item’s value. A beautiful Tiffany-style lamp got almost no bids while a small, generic-looking silver-plated tray generated a heated bidding exchange and ultimately went for hundreds of dollars.
I just didn’t get it. Lamps are functional. Who needs a silver-plated tray, other than to give their white-gloved butler something to carry their correspondence on? (My butler just forwards my email to me.)
I had assumed that auction prices reflected trends in the antiques market. Instead, I discovered another element at work, one that had less to do with economics and more to do with human nature.
Unlike at a retail store — where you might buy an item based on its usefulness or esthetics — or at a tag sale, where you’re looking for a great deal — an auction item’s value appears to be based mainly on one thing: whether someone else bids on it.
Take, for example, a large wooden board the auctioneer’s assistant struggled to hold up. Upward-pointing cow horns were nailed all over the face of it, surrounding a tiny mirror in the center.
“Next, we’ve got this … interesting hat rack,” the auctioneer said. The crowd snickered.
He couldn’t get anyone to bite on his suggested opening bid of $25, or $20, or even $10, and I thought for a moment he’d start offering us money to take it off his hands. But when he got down to $5, somebody accidentally waved their paddle, perhaps at an errant fly, and a bidding war erupted out of nowhere.
All at once, a dozen of the very people who had just laughed at the hat rack raised their paddles skyward or swatted their neighbor on the butt (it was hard to tell in all the commotion) — not because they recognized some resurgent popularity in cow-horn hat racks, but because they couldn’t stand the thought of anyone else winning it.
The auctioneer — with rapid-fire speech, sounding much like I do after my third cup of coffee — acknowledged bids from every corner of the room until all but one tenacious bidder dropped out.
“Sold for $150 to No. 23!” said the auctioneer, pointing to a man in the second row.
I can’t lie: While I’m pretty sure No. 23 had made a $150 mistake, a tiny part of me begrudged him the hat rack. He had it; therefore, I wanted it.
I don’t even wear hats.
The hat rack may be gone forever, but its sale sparked in me a desire to return to the auction house soon, where, with my new understanding of the psychology of bidding, I will fight for other, equally hideous objects with no practical purpose.
Next time I won’t leave until I’ve won something I don’t need, don’t like and can’t afford.
I can’t wait.

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