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As the National Auctioneers Association noted in their article about the History of Auctions, records handed down from ancient Greek scribes document auctions occurring as far back as 500 B.C.

Almost all of these auctions, since 500 B.C. — over 2,500 years — have been live auctions. In other words, an auctioneer stands in front of a crowd of bidders and recites the bid he has, and the bid he wants in a rapid fashion. Items may sell in as little as 15 seconds … typically concluded with the word, “Sold!”

Countless auctioneers have been asked over the years by potential clients about the rapid-fire talking (bid calling) that is used at a live auction. I would surmise that a typical answer goes something like this:

    “Well, we talk fast so as to keep the bidders attention — get them emotionally involved … the fast talking suggests an urgency, and the message that they need to make a decision quickly.”

Possibly the questioner would even ask a follow-up, such as “So, this helps me? This helps prices?” Most all auctioneers would answer that:

    “Definitely. Give people time to think and you know what happens … and if we can’t keep their attention, they start thinking about what they should be doing at home or work, and we’ve lost them. The best situation is when the bidders become almost hypnotized …”

We wrote about Can auctions be hypnotizing? and noted this interesting effect at a live auction:

    …Even more fascinating is when someone is in this light hypnotic state, their mind is slowed down a bit, focus is narrowed, breathing is slowed and they are very open to suggestion — up to 200 more times open to suggestion, in fact, as compared to their conscious state …

Since about 1995, the Internet has been used to sell items online in a competitive fashion — at auction. Auctioneers fairly soon after started using the Internet to provide their clients (and bidders) online bidding. Instead of calling or emailing bids to an auctioneer, an online platform could manage those bids.

Our question today is, if we conduct the auction exclusively online instead of live, is that the only thing that changes? Said another way, if we merely change the method of bid delivery, which alters the “auction atmosphere” do we then counter our long-standing argument about the benefits of a live auction?

Let’s take an auction appointment occurring in 1980 with an auctioneer and a potential client. The auctioneer is, of course, describing how the auction atmosphere will be a bit uncomfortable, noisy, high pressure, quick … and how those traits of an auction contribute to higher prices.

However, if this appointment is taking place 30 years later, in 2010, the auctioneer might talk about how the online auction will allow for a more comfortable, quiet, low pressure atmosphere … and how those traits of an online auction contribute to higher prices.

It would seem the online auctioneer and the live auctioneer both argue their atmospheres produce the highest prices. It looks like this:

Online auctioneers say the benefits of their auctions allow for:

  • Comfortable environment
  • More time to make decisions
  • Low pressure
  • Easy access to comparables
  • Calm, quiet
Live auctioneers say the benefits of their auctions allow for:

  • Uncomfortable environment
  • Less time to make decisions
  • High pressure
  • Lack of comparable data
  • Chaotic, noisy

Is the auction atmosphere important? Auctioneers have held for over 2,000 years that it is indeed important. However, once the Internet allowed for online bidding, the argument changed seemingly to accommodate the bidding method.

For instance, not giving the bidder a lot of time to think was always a good thing — until we wrote software allowing them more time to bid? Auctioneers have always contended a loud, chaotic-type environment was a good thing — until bidding by computer was quiet and relatively calm, and that became a good thing?

In summary, maybe the question should be: If the auction atmosphere is important, should the atmosphere drive the bidding method, or should the bidding method drive the atmosphere?

Mike Brandly, Auctioneer, CAI, AARE has been an auctioneer and certified appraiser for over 30 years. His company’s auctions are located at: Mike Brandly, Auctioneer, Keller Williams Greater Columbus Auctions and Goodwill Columbus Car Auction and. His Facebook page is: www.facebook.com/mbauctioneer. He serves as Adjunct Faculty at Columbus State Community College and is Executive Director of The Ohio Auction School.