Gun Auction Buying Tips

by Jim Supica

Copyright, Jim Supica - used by permission.  Opinions are those of the author and not necessarily those of NRA or the National Firearms Museum.  Portions originally published in Blue Book of Gun Values.

Live auctions offer buying opportunities for sporting, recreational, or defensive firearms.  In addition, specialty firearms auctioneers have come to be a dominant force in the collectible firearms market.

It's fun & easy to buy guns at auction, and there are definitely bargains to be had.  It's also easy to wind up with a critical, and sometimes justified, case of buyer's remorse.  Here are some tips & techniques picked up from years of working as a professional firearms auctioneer, and also from buying hundreds of guns at auction, both for resale and for personal use.

Know when to stop bidding.

The single most important rule of buying at auction is to mentally set a limit for how much you're going to pay for an item that's being offered and sticking to it. Many of the other rules will relate back to this fundamental concept. Never assume that a gun must be worth it because the other fellow is still bidding. If you do, you may have just let the second dumbest person in the room set your price.

Don't be afraid to start bidding.

In terms of regrets, this is the next most common (right behind "I got caught up and bid too much"). The "I can't believe it sold that cheap!" syndrome. If a gun you've inspected and can use is going for a bargain price, get in and bid. If you're one of those folks who is nervous about bidding at an auction, get a friend or dealer to bid for you. Many auctions move at a brisk pace, and if you hesitate the gun may be hammered "sold" to someone else.

How to bid.

There's no great secret here, but it's a good idea to bid in a way that's obvious to the auctioneer. Raising your hand or bidder number card nearly always works. While it's common courtesy to the auctioneer not to make wild gestures or wave at friends while the bidding's in process, don't worry about sitcom-like situations where you accidentally buy an expensive piece by scratching your nose. Most auctioneers are good at sorting out real bids from unintentional gestures.

Sometimes part of bidding strategy may be to keep other bidders from knowing you are bidding. For example, this may be the case for dealers, since some bidders will watch knowledgeable dealers figuring that if they are buying to mark an item up for resale, it must be going at a good price. (This can backfire, by the way, if the dealer is placing a "buy at any price" type bid for a deep-pocket collector.) If you are planning to bid by winking or scratching your nose, it's a good idea to tell the auctioneer or one of his "ring men" (assistants who help the auctioneer watch for bids) ahead of time, so they can be watching for you. Too-subtle gestures may be missed by the auctioneer, and generally once the hammer falls, the bidding will not be re-opened.

Don't make it personal.

Unless you're in it for the sport, and money is truly no object, don't get in a bidding war that takes you over your pre-set limit. That's one battle where the winner is nearly always the ultimate loser.

Many auctions, aren't.

Folks unfamiliar with the auction world tend to assume that it's a selling method where the high bidder always gets to buy the item being sold. This is not necessarily the case. If an auction is advertised as an "Absolute Auction," that means that the auctioneer will indeed sell all merchandise to the highest bidder, regardless of price. However, that's a term you don't see all that often any more.
Most auctions will be selling at least some of the items "subject to reserve." This means that if the bidding doesn't reach a certain predetermined price, the item will not be sold. Reserves do not have to be announced, and in the vast majority of cases, the auctioneer just hammers the item "sold" to a house number. To the casual observer, it appears as if there was an actual buyer, when in fact the item was a "no sale."

I personally don't like reserves at auction, and always prefer to buy at absolute auctions. However, reserves are a fact of life, and most of the specialty catalogued firearms auction houses will have at least some reserved items in any given sale.

If you are on good terms with the auctioneer, it's perfectly legitimate to ask before the sale whether a particular item is being sold subject to reserve. He will generally tell you, although in most cases he will not tell you the reserve price.

Read and understand the terms.

Auctions that have a flyer or a catalog will usually have a list of the Terms of Sale. Read them, understand them, believe them, and bid accordingly. In addition to showing whether the sale is absolute, there are a number of specific things you should heed:

  • Guarantee of descriptions (if any). This applies primarily to the written descriptions in catalog sales, but also usually applies to anything the auctioneer may say about an item being sold.  The terms will tell you to what extent the auction house will stand behind their description of the guns being sold.  A common provision among cataloged firearms descriptions is to guarantee the portion of the description in bold face only.  For example, a gun might be listed as follows:
    Colt Single Action Army - Cavalry model with "U.S." markings intact. Excellent condition with 98% original finish.
    In that case, if after you bought the gun it turned out to be a Uberti copy, the auction house would generally allow a return for refund.  However, if you decide the U.S. markings are phony, and the gun is refinished, the auction house is not obligated to make any adjustment, and you're stuck with it.
    While some of the better auction houses will accommodate a good customer who finds an obvious problem with the non-guaranteed part of the description after the sale, none of them want to argue the difference between 90% vs. 95% finish, and will hold you to the exact terms of the sale.
  • "As is, where is." This means that there is no guarantee of the item's description or authenticity whatsoever.  You buy it exactly as you find it, the sale is final when the hammer falls and you are contractually bound to pay your bid price.
  • Buyer's premium. The high bidder pays this additional percentage added on to the gavel price after the sale.  Fifteen percent is common at the high end, color catalog, gun auction houses.  This means if you are the winning bidder at $1,000, your actual purchase price will be $1,150.   Also, the terms will generally disclose how much sales tax will be charged.  You need to keep these add-ons in mind when deciding the maximum you are willing to bid for an item.
  • Removal of items. The terms will sometimes have a provision for when the item must be removed.  For most items at a gun auction, this isn't much of a problem, but if you're bidding on an oversized gun safe located in the basement of a gun shop that's being liquidated on site, it can be a serious concern.  Also, if you are having a gun shipped by the auctioneer, understand the procedure and charge for the shipping.  While it's less common than it used to be, some of the high end auction houses used to contract out the shipping to firms that charged very steep prices.
  • Method of payment. The terms will specify how you can pay.  Cash is nearly always accepted.  Credit cards may or may not be, and sometimes will have a service charge added (prohibited by the credit card company, but done by some auctioneers nonetheless).  If you are planning to pay by check, it's always a good idea to contact the auctioneer well in advance to determine what their policy is on accepting checks as some will require pre-approval.

The auctioneer is working for the seller.

His job is to get the most for the seller. Nearly all auctioneers get paid a percentage of the gavel price, so the more an item brings, the more he makes. Many auctioneers buy items themselves for resale at their auctions. A smart auctioneer will understand that bidders will be more enthusiastic, and bid more in the end, if he's fair to them as well, but understand where his interests lie. If you must have a particular item, you might not want to let the auctioneer know the level of your enthusiasm ahead of time. A less-than-scrupulous auctioneer may drain your wallet in such circumstances.

Inspect the gun ahead of time.

This is essential. There is nearly always a preview period before the sale. Show up then and do a detailed inspection of not only the specific guns you're interested in, but also any guns that you might buy if they sell for bargain prices. Bring a strong flashlight, bore-light, magnifying glass, and any other tools you'd use to inspect a gun at a gun show. Ask permission before removing grips or any other disassembly or manipulation of a firearm (including dry-firing or working the mechanism).

Do your homework before the sale.

Research the market value of the guns you're interested in before the sale. Compare prices at gun shops, online, and in publications like Gun List. It's not at all uncommon to see a used gun sell at auction for significantly more than the bidder could have bought it for new at the local gun shop. Use your copy of the Standard Catalog of Firearms and other reference books, and don't be shy about bringing them to auction with you, in case a potential bargain comes up.

Pick up the crumbs & watch for the plums.

I've had good success buying common lower value guns at fancy high-dollar auctions. In this situation, the auctioneer is not going to linger trying to get an extra $10 out of a $300 shotgun that's selling for $150 while the big fish are waiting to bid on the five or six figure Henry rifle or Paterson Colt or whatever. I've also had luck picking up unusual high-dollar collector guns at small non-catalogued local auctions. At those, the $300 shotgun may go for $350 or $400 (especially if hunting season's just around the corner), but no one wants the old wall-hanger that you can't get ammunition for anymore. The more obscure the gun, the more likely this is to be the case.

Be an early bird & the last man standing.

Bidding can start slow at an auction, and the auctioneer usually wants the first several items to sell fast to get the crowd in the mood to bid aggressively. If you're ready to bid, you can be the beneficiary. Likewise, there are often bargains at the tale-end of the sale, as bidders start to drift off to get in line to pay.

Take advantage of the auctioneer's mistakes.

While most firearms specialty auction catalogs are excellent, I've seldom seen one that didn't have at least one mistake. This is where careful previewing of the guns can pay off. If you notice an error in the catalog description that should lessen the value of the gun, make the auctioneer aware of it, and ask that he announce it from the podium when the gun is sold. This can slow bidding on the item. (Abuse this tactic at your own risk, however; I'd advise against quibbling over minor disagreements in condition description, for example. You'll just piss off the auctioneer, and he WILL remember.)

On the other hand, if you find a discrepancy that increases the value of the gun, keep your mouth shut and be ready to bid. This is an area where your product knowledge and research can pay off. You may recognize a rare and valuable variation that others have overlooked.

Work with the auctioneer …

Most auctioneers appreciate "good" bidders, and will reward them by looking to them for bids and being extra careful to treat them fairly. You can help the auctioneer by opening bids on items that are having trouble getting started (only if you are willing to buy at that price, of course).

… but don't let the auctioneer work you.

The majority of auctioneers are honest. That said, a significant number will use techniques that range from aggressive to criminal to increase the bid amount. Some tactics to watch out for include:

  • Running the bid. When you're bidding, look around to be sure others are actually bidding against you.  Sometimes an auctioneer will legitimately continue to raise the price when only one person is bidding because a reserve has not yet been met, or because an absentee bid has been left with him.  Other times, he is simply robbing you, one small step at a time.
  • Fast hammer. On the other end of the spectrum, an unethical auctioneer may call an item "Sold" at an unreasonably low price without giving all bidders an opportunity to bid.  In this case, he may be selling to a partner or preferred customer or even himself at a price below market value.  If this is the case, he is stealing from the person who consigned the item. 
    Don't be too hasty to judge, though - a good honest auctioneer may drop the hammer fast if it's necessary to pick up the pace of the auction or to increase bidder enthusiasm.
    If you think a preferred buyer is getting a fast hammer, you can fight back by bidding early and vigorously, and leaving your bidder card in the air until your pre-set maximum bid is passed, or the item is sold to you. You do run a greater risk of the auctioneer running the bid up on you, but that type of bidding is virtually impossible for an auctioneer to ignore, and if he does, you are justified in immediately and vocally complaining.
  • Jump start. An auctioneer may jump start the bidding by pretending he has bidders when he doesn't.  Just because an auctioneer starts with a particular figure doesn't mean he actually has anyone willing to pay that amount.  In this case, you may want to wait before jumping in.  Sometimes, he'll have to back down to a lower level to get the real bidding started.
  • Buy-backs. In some ways, buy-backs are an informal way of letting a seller set a reserve on his items.  The auctioneer allows the current owner to bid on his own items, driving the price up to a level the owner is willing to accept.  The risk is that a greedy owner may decide to run the price up to unreasonable highs, rather than just protecting against unreasonable lows.  My personal take is that this is a bit sleazy, and the better auctioneers will insist that an owner wishing to protect his merchandise place a reserve rather than making buy-back bids himself.  You can ask an auctioneer who the owner is ahead of time, and whether he allows buy-backs.

Use (and abuse) of absentee bidding.

If you can't attend a live auction, in most cases you can still bid by placing an absentee bid by mail, fax, or email.  You specify the maximum amount you are willing to bid, and a good ethical auctioneer will bid for you as if you were there in person, attempting to buy for you as cheaply as possible without exceeding your specified maximum bid.  A bad unethical auctioneer will open the bidding with your absentee bid, and sell it to you at your maximum price even if no one else is interested in the item.  The best protection is to inquire as to an auctioneer's reputation for treating absentee bidders fairly.  If you place a large number of reasonable market-value absentee bids, and the items you get are all either right at your maximum or one bid increment below, this might raise a caution flag.

Likewise, many auctioneers are set up to handle telephone bids.  This has the advantage of keeping your bid anonymous.  The downside is that you can't see if anyone is bidding against you.

In any type of absentee bidding, you are relying on the auctioneer's description of the item.  Be sure you understand to what extent he will stand behind that description, as discussed above, and investigate his reputation for accurate descriptions.  Most major established auction houses are very good, by the way.

Check for leftovers after the sale.

It never hurts to check with the auctioneer after the sale to see if any items are still available.  Some may have failed to meet reserves, and the seller may have second thoughts about the value.  Other times, bidders will fall through, and the auctioneer will find it easier to sell to a post-sale buyer than try to enforce the original bidders obligation to consummate the sale.

From The Blue Book of Gun Values


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