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Box in a storage unit.

Jar full of wheat pennies.

If we don’t open the box, with our knowledge of what was in the other boxes …

If we don’t check the pennies for rare dates, given that the other coins were of nominal value …

Are bidders optimists? Does the hope that something valuable is in that box translate to higher bids exhibiting the belief there is?

It seems so.

Circumstances (the story) appear critical for this optimism.

  • If our sealed box came from a famed political figure from the 1800’s, and was found stored above a stairway in his 4-story Victorian home in Vermont — what’s in that box?
  • If our sealed box came from a lean-to connected to a garage, belonging to a blue-collar worker in Iowa with little means — what’s in that box?

In either case, we really don’t know what’s in that box, but we tend to infer from the circumstances; most would conclude the above box’s contents are likely more valuable if from Vermont, than if from Iowa.

However, let’s assume an auctioneer is consigned this box from the Vermont estate — would it be prudent to open it and sell the contents individually and in plain sight? Or, would it be prudent to leave it sealed, and allow the bidders to speculate on the contents? Which method would realize more in proceeds?

Of course, we don’t know what’s in the box. Maybe it’s all debris, with no value? Maybe it contains gold and platinum jewelry, and is considerably valuable?

Might the bidders envision more value in the box than there is? Might there be more value in the box than the bidders envision? Yes.

What about our jar of wheat pennies? Should we sort them by date and check to see if any key dates are present? Or, should we leave it sealed, and allow the bidders to speculate on the contents and any key dates?

It would matter to coin collectors if the pennies were collected by another coin collector, or someone with little or no coin expertise. Given another coin collector, the jar probably contains no key dates — whereas if the coins were collected by a non-collector, key dates become more probable.

Might the bidders envision more key dates than there really are? Might there be more key dates in the jar than the bidders envision? Yes.

Storage lien auctions often utilize a custom of allowing bidders to visually inspect, without crossing over the unit’s “threshold.” In other words, you can look but you can’t touch, or further investigate by opening boxes, etc. — because you can’t go into the unit.

However, some auctioneers selling storage lien auctions remove all the contents of the unit, and display them out in plain sight.

Which method realizes better prices? An interesting case in 2008 in Wisconsin (Cook v. Public Storage, 2008 WI APP 155) ruled that not allowing people beyond the threshold was in violation of a commercially reasonable sale standard.

It’s likely any court in the United States would rule similarly. Maybe the concept of “commercially reasonable” hints the courts believe there’s likely more in the box than the bidders will envision?

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 Auctions and Goodwill Columbus Car Auction. 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.