Equal Footing: The +1 of absentee bidding

By Renee Corbino


gavelOver dinner with some of my colleagues in the auction world, we began talking about absentee bidding and how sometimes an item will sell to a floor bidder for the exact same amount as an earlier absentee bid.  Many times clients feel that because their bid was in first, prior to the start of the auction, they should have been the winner, but the item sold to a bidder on the floor and was already paid for and taken away.  This discussion began because it can be difficult to explain the situation to the absentee bidder, but it is an important issue and illustrative of a situation that both bidders and auctioneers face from time to time. While it may appear at first glance that this is a situation where the bids are “tied,” that is not actually the case.  Tied bids usually apply to two separate absentee bidders that have left the same amount, and in that situation the earlier absentee bid will  take precedence. I’ve tried to simplify the explanation for anyone who finds themselves in this situation, and provided a way in which to prevent it from happening on a must-have item.  (To read about general absentee bidding, read my earlier post here).

The Situation:

You place an absentee bid at an auction house, but the item sells to an in-house bidder for the same amount, often referred to as “equal footing.”

Why and How This Happens:

Typically if an auctioneer has  an absentee bid they will start the item with that absentee bid, looking to the crowd (phone and in-house) for the next increment.  They will bid your absentee bids competitively against other bidders, until you are the winner or the bidding has exceeded your top bid. Sometimes though, because of the back and forth nature of the bidding, and multiple bidders, the lot sells to a floor bidder for your top amount.  This happens because the auctioneer returns to your bid at $140 and the floor takes the bid at $150, without authorization to take you above $150, the lot will sell at $150 to the floor bidder. In order to protect you from spending all your money unless you have too,  the auctioneer did not automatically take you to your top bid.  Sometimes this just happens.  Auctioneers are not doing anything wrong, its just a function of the way that auctions and absentee bidding go sometimes.  But there are ways that you can mitigate this situation, and give yourself an extra chance to get the item.

The Solution:

Most auction houses understand that sometimes you get on equal footing with an in house or phone bidder.  There is a convention used called a “plus 1 bid” which effectively means that if you end up at equal footing with a floor bidder, you authorize the auctioneer to take you one more bid above your maximum. For example, if you have the bid at $140, the $150 bid goes to the floor, you authorize the auctioneer to give you one more chance by bidding for you at $160.

This authorization is done at the time of placing the bid by literally writing +1 after your maximum bid or telling the person on the phone that you would like your bid to be “plus 1.”  The auctioneers and their staff will know what this means and make sure that you bids are executed properly.  Unfortunately, it may mean that you have to spend just a little bit more, but the point is to allow you to have the same number of bidding opportunities as your original bid.

While absentee bidding is an excellent way to buy items if you are unable to be at an auction in person, sometimes situations such as this one arises, so its important to understand how to make sure that you have a successful experience by understanding the way that absentee bidding works, and how to avoid some of the issues that can arise. If you have questions, ask the auction house!  They want you to understand their process so that you have a successful experience!


About Renee Corbino
Renee Corbino has a decade of experience in the auction industry. Her expertise covers a broad spectrum of fine and decorative arts and antiques including: paintings, silver, ceramics, furniture, netsuke and more. She received her Bachelor’s degree with a double major in classical studies & art history from the University of Maryland, College Park and her Master of Decorative Arts from the Smithsonian & George Mason University.

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