John Grant is an antiques expert, but he’s more famous as the author of the Lovejoy series of novels. In the novels, Lovejoy (an antiques forger and all-around scoundrel) explains many scams of the antiques trade, including auction scams and cons. Here are some.
Scams Made by the Auctioneers
1 – Bids “Off The Wall”
The auctioneer pretends to see a bidder on the side or in the back to bump up the price. Let’s say the price for an item is $1,200; you raise your hand to indicate a bid for $1,300. The auctioneer pretends to take a $1,300 bid “off the wall,” then immediately comes to you – so quickly that your hand is still in the air – for a $1,400 bid. The auctioneer moves so quickly that you don’t have time to react or object. If you’re sitting up front or in the middle, you might think this “off the wall” bid was legitimate. Sitting in the back, you could see that there wasn’t any such bid at all.
This scam is also called taking a bid “off the chandelier.”
2 – The Bounce
This is a less-nuanced version of the previous scam. It happened to my dad at an auction in Indianapolis. He was bidding on a car; twenty-four hundred was the price. The auctioneer pointed at my dad and said, “I have four thousand!”
The auctioneer “bounced” the price – considerably – while my dad’s hand was in the air.
In front of a crowd of four hundred people, my dad shouted and called the auctioneer out on the trick. The crowd laughed. The auctioneer mumbled apology, then mumbled something about how it was dad’s fault and continued.
That is your only defense. The auctioneer hopes that you’ll be intimidated by the crowd. But you will have to speak up! This is your money and you must defend it!
3 – The Nelson
If there are friends or cronies in the audience, the auctioneer may want to shuck items to them at a lower price. The auctioneer will pretend not to see you raise your hand, turning a “blind eye” to your bid. Then he cries “Sold!” and closes the bidding quickly.
In England, this scam is called “the nelson,” named after Lord Nelson’s famous trick at Copenhagen.
Again, your defense is to speak up, before the auctioneer can say “Sold.”
Scams by the Bidders
4 – The Milk-Drop
There are at least two people in this scam, though it helps to include a dishonest auctioneer. An item is sold in auction to a Fake Bidder. After the auction, the Fake Bidder goes to the auctioneers, but claims he was bidding on a different item. The Fake Bidder fakes an angry outburst (“Just try to sue me!”) and leaves. Auctioneers hate to have unsold merchandise, especially if they are working on commission.
But who should show up? A Saving Angel! The Saving Angel pretends to overhear this exchange and quickly says, “Oh! That item is available again!” and makes a much lower offer. The auction is over. What else can they do? So they sell the item at a much lower price!
5 – The Shuff
There are at least two people needed for this trick. Let’s say you have a reputation for knowing quality items. When you bid, others will bid against you – trusting that what you bid on must be worth it. This drives the price up. But if you stop bidding, then the others stop bidding too. You drop out – but your secret partner continues bidding. You “shuff” or shuffle the bidding to your partner.
6 – The Lop
Let’s say the bid on the item is beyond your limit. You drop out. But you might still have a chance. Often, “buyer’s regret” will afflict the winning bidders. After the auction, people might find that they overspent, or maybe they enjoyed the bidding process more than the item itself. So after the auction, you just walk up to that person and say, “Excuse me, you won the bid on Item 12. Would you be interested in selling it?” It just might work.
7 – The Waltz
Before the auction, people examine the merchandise. Miscellaneous junk is sold in lots. Looking through the boxes, people might find a pretty little item that they want. What do dishonest people do? They hide that item under the bottom flaps of the cardboard box, or even move the item to another lot. If other people don’t know about the item, the crook gets something he wants for a rock-bottom price.
Referring to an auction, Lovejoy says, “Beneath the kindly exterior…beats the scarlet emotion of pure greed.”
Be careful. Be wise to the scams. And if possible, read the Lovejoy novels.
(Jonathon Gash is the pen name of John Grant)
Gash, Jonathon. The Firefly Gadroon. St. Martin's Press, 1982.
Gash, Jonathon. The Lies of Fair Ladies. St. Martin's Press, 1992.
Hello! My name is Heath Shive, content manager at ScholarFox. I'll be the author of most of the blog posts. I'm a former geologist and currently a freelance writer. The world is complex and seemingly crazy. Good! Because when you love to learn, you'll never be bored.