(This page revised September 9, 2015)
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Pens from the auction at the 2007 NY/NJ Pen Show. Click
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 Terry Mawhorter working up the bidding over an item
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 in 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 or because you were trying to be too clever and hold out until the last second before the auctioneer cried, “Sold!”
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?
Examining the lots before the auction.
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, commonly called paddles, 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 a recent auction with this set because I made sure the auctioneer knew I was bidding:
So, are you convinced? Will I see you in the crowd at the next pen show auction?
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.