In the comments on the article Auction Laws in the U.S.A., a couple of great questions have been asked by Frank Ceresi. While I posted a response in the comments, I thought this would be a good topic and may generate its own comments and questions.
Is it lawful for the principal owners of an auction house to consign items in their own live and/or internet auction?
Is it lawful for the principals in an auction house to bid in their own live or internet auction?
I’m not aware of anything unlawful with an auction house selling items they have purchased to resell. Why should it be? This is how most resellers operate in the first place, from flea markets to major department stores, whether they sell used or new goods. I wouldn’t understand why anyone would consider this to be an unacceptable practice. The auction house purchases items and sells them to the highest bidder. This is the purest form of capitalism and free enterprise. After all, companies sell their own stocks and commodities by auction everyday, through the New York Stock Exchange.
Now, the second question requires a little clarification. Of course, while the laws can vary from state to state, I would also recommend that you carefully read the laws for your particular state to determine any variances from most other state laws. So, keep in mind, my following comments are for majority of state laws, but there could be the possibility of a few states that may indicate otherwise. Keep in mind, at auction, the buyer must perform their own due diligence and know the laws, as well as the terms of the auction.
In most states, the seller or their agent (which can certainly include the auctioneer) may be allowed to bid on behalf of any minimum reserve prices set by the seller, as long as “SUCH BIDDING IS DISCLOSED” to the bidders. This is also the primary difference between “shilling” and “protecting the reserve”.
There are basically two ways to “protect the reserve”. One method method is to “Pass” the item, if it does not meet the reserve. The other is “bidding on behalf of the reserve” and may only be done if DISCLOSED to the bidders (note the emphasis). Some auctioneers may also use a consignor bidder number or “house number”, in such cases that the reserve is not met, to keep things flowing smoother and allows for tracking during settlement of the auction.
The key point is “DISCLOSURE”. If the auctioneer has not disclosed that such bidding may be allowed, then it would be considered “shilling” and would be considered fraudulent bidding.
This disclosure may be in the form of written “Terms and Conditions” which may be posted or otherwise made available to the bidders, or may be statements made during the “Opening Statements” of the auction, which is why it is always a good idea to be present at the beginning of an auction and listen closely to everything the auctioneer says, at that time. If you arrive late, you are still bound by those oral statements, even though you may not have actually heard them being made. This falls under the same basis as you’ve probably heard before, concerning your responsibilities to know the law prior to any actions you take… “ignorance is no excuse”. So, if they have written terms and conditions, you should read them carefully, in their entirety. However, there is no requirement that the terms must be written. For that matter, the auctioneer is also allowed to set forth the conditions of each sale, as each item is being offered, which may also superceed any previous statements made or modify the terms for that particular sale.
It should also be noted that the auctioneer is not required to state whether any item has a reserve or not, much less how much the minimum reserve price may be for any item. In fact, at most auctions, any reserve is kept secret and is not disclosed. There are several reasons for this and experience has certainly born out a couple of those most prominently… one is that it “sets a maximum price in the mind of the buyer” and we all know that an item is worth what the highest bidder is willing to pay on a particular day.
This is not to say that the item may not bring more on a different day, with different buyers and the seller is not required to sell their item for less than they are willing to accept. This goes back to the definition of “Fair Market Value” which is “the price a willing buyer and willing seller agree on”. Therefore, this is the basis of the “reserved minimum” which must be met, before the seller agrees to sell.
Another reason why most auctioneers don’t disclose reserves, is due to another element of human nature… if the minimum amount is disclosed, most won’t even offer a starting bid at the reserve price. It’s as though they automatically deem the price to be “too high”. (Of course, then there are those that don’t understand auction laws and think everything has to sell regardless of price and think that if it starts lower, they might get it anyway.) However, from experience, if the item has a “reasonable” reserve, the bidders will usually meet or exceed it, if there are two or more truly interested bidders and they are allowed to start the bidding where ever they wish and bid accordingly. Of course, if there is only one interested bidder, the seller’s agent may bid against them until it reaches the reserve (if such bidding was properly DISCLOSED, as discussed above).
Of course, if you have attended auctions, you also know that you may set your own price prior to bidding, only to find yourself bidding more than you initially intended, as you felt it was worth more than you hoped someone else would pay.
Unfortunately, one of the myths that many people have about auctions, is that “everything must sell regardless of price” and they go looking for a “steal of a deal”. While there are often plenty of great deals to be had, there is no requirement that everything must be sold regardless of price. The U.C.C. states that “all auctions are considered to be WITH Reserve, UNLESS stated to be Absolute”. Therefore, the auctioneer may still cancel the sale of any item prior to announcing ’sold’, if he/she feels that the item has not met a reasonable value, even if it does not have a minimum reserve price. However, the ethical auctioneer would not bid against you in such cases (since there is no specific reserve), but only ‘Pass’ the item if a reasonable value was not reached.