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Pen Shows IV: The Auction

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Auction goodies

Pens from the auction at the 2007 NY/NJ Pen Show. Click
on a pen in the photo to see what it is and what I paid for it.

Want good deals on great pens and cool pen-related goodies? I’m talking about the fresh stuff that hasn't been picked over like last week’s produce. If you’re willing to take a little chance and duke it out with other collectors, you can build your collection very effectively and have fun doing it. All you have to do is attend the auctions at the pen shows you go to. (Not all shows have auctions, so be sure to check the show’s Web site before assuming that there will be one.)

The pens shown to the left represent my haul from the auction at the 2007 New York/New Jersey Pen Show. Some of these pens came at prices representing roughly their fair market value, but others were real bargains. To see whether the idea of picking up pens like these looks attractive to you, click on a pen in the photo to see what it is and what I paid for it.

How a Pen Auction Works

If you play on eBay, you can forget all the tricks you’ve learned there. That’s not how it works at a pen show. Everything at a pen show auction happens in real time. You see the people you're bidding against, and there’s no automatic software to kick your bid up when someone bids more.

An item, or lot, can be a pen, a bag of pens, a vintage magazine ad, a rocker blotter, a sterling and crystal inkwell, a 1912 Parker Jointless store counter display cabinet, whatever is available. Lots are consigned to the auction by private individuals or businesses. The winning bidder pays an extra fee, called a buyer’s premium, and that amount — usually 10% of the lot’s final price — goes to the auction house. (At a pen show, the organizers are the house, and their income from the auction helps to defray the costs of putting on the show.) The sale price of each lot, less a fee called the consignor’s premium, goes to the lot’s consignor.

Lots are put up for sale one at a time, and the sale is conducted by the auctioneer, who will describe each lot before starting the bidding on it. One word of caution: the auctioneer’s description reflects only what he or she knows about the lot, and it’s not guaranteed to be accurate or complete.

Auctioneer working the crowd

Auctioneer Terry Mawhorter working up the bidding over an item
at the 2006 Ohio Pen Show auction. Photo © 2006 Tom Rehkopf.

The auctioneer will start the bidding on each lot by suggesting a bid. Frequently, the amount of this suggestion is the final price the auctioneer thinks the lot should draw, ands the auctioneer will quickly ask for a lower price, perhaps half the first amount named. The asking price will decline until someone offers a bid, and then the competition is off and running. The auctioneer’s helpers are free to participate, but the auctioneer typically does not bid.

When a lot goes up for sale, it stays up until the auctioneer can’t coax any more bids out of the audience. This sometimes develops into a highly entertaining situation; for example, if the pen being auctioned is an unusual Parker 75 and the auctioneer recognizes a Parker 75 collector in the room, there might be a great deal of wheedling and byplay (e.g., “let him have one more look at it” or “you’re not gonna let her take that away from you for only $5.00, are you?”) before the auctioneer gives up. Finally, with the traditional “Going once… Going twice… Sold!” the auctioneer declares the item sold. Because there is no fixed ending time, there’s also no sniping — nobody is going to outbid you the last three seconds as can happen on eBay. If you lose out on an item, it’s only because you didn’t want to outbid the current high bidder.

As with other auctions, some lots may carry a reserve. The reserve is the price below which the cconsignor will not sell the item, and it is not announced except as described in this paragraph. Lots with reserves are so marked in the catalog. If bidding peters out before the reserve is reached, the auctioneer will announce the reserve and ask the current high bidder whether he or she wants the item at that price. If not, the auctioneer will offer the item to the room at large. If no one wants it at the reserve price, the auctioneer will withdraw the lot, and it will not be sold.

What’s for Sale, and Do I Want It?

Auction preview

Examining the lots before the auction.
Photo © 2006 Tom Rehkopf.

You do not have to go into an auction blind. The lots to be offered are listed by number, and described, in a printed catalog that may also include a copy of the auction’s rules. The photo at the top of the page includes the catalog from the auction at which I bought the pens shown. During the day before the auction, the lots are available for inspection, usually in a locked case. At most pen shows, there will be a defined time or times during which someone will be there to remove items from the case so that you can handle them and examine them closely. This means that there is no excuse for buying something and then finding that it wasn’t what you thought it was. For this reason, all sales are final, where-is, as-is. What you see is what you get, and you are responsible for taking it away with you. The lots are also on display in the auction room before the actual start of the affair.

Getting In, and Getting Out

Getting into a pen show auction is easy. All you have to do is show up and register. At registration you give your name and address, and you receive a bidding number. These numbers are “flags” that bidders raise to indicate that they are bidding, and they also provide the auctioneer with the winner”s identity for each lot. As each lot is sold, it is set aside to be gathered with other lots the same bidder may win during the course of the auction. At some auctions, bidding numbers are simply written on rectangular pieces of card stock; at others they’re “official” bidding paddles like the one shown in the photo at the top of this page.

Getting out of a pen show auction, if you have won anything, entails picking up your lots and paying for them. The staff at pen show auctions are collectors like you, not professional auction people, so to keep the craziness to a minimum during the auction itself, you’ll not be allowed to check out until the end of the auction. That’s the moment you’ve been waiting for: grab your goodies and abscond to gloat over them!

A Word About Payment: The auction rules will state what forms of payment are accepted. Usually, payment is limited to cash, traveler’s cheques, or money orders except for individuals who are known to the auctioneers and who make alternate arrangements before the start of the auction.

The Final Word

Auctions are fun, but things can get serious, as some lots are bid up into the thousands of dollars. If you are bidding on something, no matter what its price, make sure the auctioneer know you’re bidding. If you sit quietly in your corner and don’t wave your bidding number or speak up with conviction, the auctioneer can miss your bid and someone else might just walk away with the second-year Hundred Year Pen set you’ve been jonesing for since before Noah came over on the Mayflower. I walked away from the 2007 Triangle Pen Show auction (Raleigh/Cary, NC) with this one:

Fountain pen
Fountain pen

So, are you convinced? Will I see you in the crowd at the next pen show auction?

Auction crowd

Crowd at the 2006 Ohio Pen Show auction. Photo © 2006 Tom Rehkopf.

Notes:
  1. The one slight catch to all of this is that pen show auctions are generally held after the show closes for the day, so that you need to have a weekend pass to go to the auction. It’s worth it.


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