Created By: RienrienAugust 1, 2011 Last Edited By: RienrienAugust 16, 2011

Always Absolute Auctions

Auctions are always straight-forward and vanilla, with no reserve prices or chandelier bids involved

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There are many, many different types of auctions, but the specifics can be a little too quotidian for popular culture. Everyone understands the auction as seen on TV: Everyone sees every bid, the highest bid goes home with the item no matter what, and there's a crazy motormouth auctioneer who never makes sleazy off-the-wall bids. In contrast, watching someone write down a list of bids for a silent auction is pretty boring.

Other auction situations and features rarely seen in fiction include:

  • Off-the-wall or chandelier bidding. In order to drive up the price, the auctioneer will pretend that a bid has been made. To maintain the illusion of eye contact with a real bidder, the auctioneer stares at a spot on the wall or the chandelier, hence the name. Common in real life big-ticket auctions but rarely seen in fiction

  • Reserve price. A minimum price for an auction lot. Partially Truth In Television with regards to online auctions because on eBay, setting a reserve price is very unpopular with bidders.

  • Silent auction. You write down what you're willing to pay for each lot. The sellers looks at what everyone wrote down. The winner wins.

  • SOB. Suggested opening bid. If there is an SOB in fiction, it will usually be unrealistically low.

  • Winner's curse. A fancy, semi-technical term for getting caught up in the bidding and paying too much for something. Almost never seen in fiction because we all know that when someone pays apparently too much for an auction lot, it means there's something special about that lot.

  • Sealed bid. You don't see anyone else's bid, which means no tense glances between rivals in a crowded auction house.

  • Collusion. The technical term for bidders teaming up to game the auction. Sometimes seen in fiction but not as often as one would think.

  • Dutch auction. The auctioneer starts high and lowers the price until there's a taker.

  • Vickrey auction and/or proxy bidding. Second-highest bid wins. These rules create (mathematically provable) incentives to only bid what you're honestly willing to pay. Rarely used in real life but beloved of auction theoreticians, which makes its absence in fiction all the more surprising.

And many more. However, explaining these terms to an audience might confuse them or grind the story to a halt, so we usually get the plain vanilla absolute auctions. In fiction, this makes auctions kind of a unique situation because they defy the common bias towards the exotic. This bias has several consequences in fictional auctions, the most common one being the old gag of someone paying a pittance for a valuable but unpopular lot.

Partly Truth In Television because some auctions play to participants' expectations of auctions, which are formed by the media, creating something of a self-fulfilling situation.

Some examples of Always Absolute Auctions in fiction include:

  • Bart buying a building in The Simpsons for the money in his pocket.

  • In Robert A Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy, an old beggar, Baslim the Cripple, buys young slave boy Thorby for a trivial sum after the auctioneer pisses off a wealthy nobleman. The auctioneer had been disgusted that no real bid had been made, and in the process of accidentally insulting the nobleman, mentioned off hand that he would take any bid. The nobleman forced him to take Balsim's bid by threatening him with violence and/or legal action if he didn't "stand by his word".

  • Shooter Mc Gavin outbids Happy Gilmore for his grandmother's repossessed house in an absolute auction held right ouside the property.

  • Part of the premise of the British games show Bargain Hunt. Two teams buy some stuff at an antiques fair, then sell it at auction for a profit. Since there is no reserve price some items have gone for as little as 50 pence.

  • In Megas XLR, the main character gets his giant robot from the junkyard. The owner of the junkyard says that he can have anything in that pile "for two bucks." Coop pulls out a muffler, the pile collapses, revealing a giant robot. Coop's response: "So... Two bucks, huh? I'll take it!" Later, the owner of the junkyard yells at Coop as he passes by in the robot, "WHERE'S MY TWO BUCKS?!?"

  • An auction on The Tick ran into the millions, starting at less than a dollar, and increasing by cents at a time. At one point, a million+ dollar bid is increased by a matter of dollars, and someone bows out, saying: "Too rich for my blood!"

  • Played for laughs in The Adventure Of Sherlock Holmes Smarter Brother. When Professor Moriarty has an auction for the Redcliff Document he doesn't set a minimum bid. After a great deal of confusion over the conversion rates for the national currencies used in the bidding, Moriarty declares that the bidding will start at 5,000 pounds. Watch it here.
Community Feedback Replies: 21
  • August 1, 2011
    Deboss
    You have to hit enter twice to get paragraphs.
  • August 1, 2011
    EddieValiant,Jr.
    The title is a little unwieldy. Why not Always Absolute Auctions?
  • August 2, 2011
    Arivne
  • August 2, 2011
    Fanra
    In Robert A Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy, an old beggar, Baslim the Cripple, buys young slave boy Thorby for a trivial sum after the auctioneer pisses off a wealthy nobleman. The auctioneer had been disgusted that no real bid had been made, and in the process of accidentally insulting the nobleman, mentioned off hand that he would take any bid. The nobleman forced him to take Balsim's bid by threatening him with violence and/or legal action if he didn't "stand by his word".
  • August 3, 2011
    benjamminsam
    Shooter Mc Gavin outbids Happy Gilmore for his grandmother's repossessed house in an absolute auction held right ouside the property.
  • August 3, 2011
    CrypticMirror
    Part of the premise of the British games show Bargain Hunt. Two teams buy some stuff at an antiques fair, then sell it at auction for a profit. Since there is no reserve price some items have gone for as little as 50pence.
  • August 3, 2011
    Aielyn
  • August 3, 2011
    SunnyV
  • August 3, 2011
    SithkingZero
    In Megas XLR, the main character gets his giant robot from the junkyard. The owner of the junkyard says that he can have anything in that pile "for two bucks." Coop pulls out a muffler, the pile collapses, revealing a giant robot. Coop's response: "So... Two bucks, huh? I'll take it!"

    Later, the owner of the junkyard yells at Coop as he passes by in the robot, "WHERE'S MY TWO BUCKS?!?"
  • August 5, 2011
    DorianMode
    An auction on The Tick ran into the millions, starting at less than a dollar, and increasing by cents at a time. At one point, a million+ dollar bid is increased by a matter of dollars, and someone bows out, saying: "Too rich for my blood!"
  • August 5, 2011
    Antigone3
    To be fair, there's a certain amount of Truth In Television to this -- many people won't bid on eBay auctions that have reserves.
  • August 5, 2011
    DarkConfidant
    In general, the different types of auctions make this less Truth in Television than not. For example, second-price auctions, where the winner pays an amount equal to the next highest bid, and all-pay auctions, where all participants have to pay the amount of their bid, with only the winner actually getting the item.
  • August 5, 2011
    ChocolateChip
    You should probably explain what reserve prices etc. are in the article.
  • August 11, 2011
    Rienrien
    Thanks for the comments. Does anyone have a preference between Always Absolute Auctions and Hollywood Auctions?
  • August 11, 2011
    IvoryVinyl
    The Price Is Right does this to decide who gets to play on stage. Borderline example though. If you bid over the retail price, you're disqualified.
  • August 11, 2011
    robybang
    • Groundhog Day: In the bachelor auction, Larry puts himself up for auction and only gets a quarter bid. The bid stands.

    • Subverted in Yes Dear: One of the few media portrayals of a silent auction and collusion. Greg wants to win a tennis game with his boss. His boss paid someone to outbid everyone so the boss wouldn't have to hold up the obligation.
  • August 11, 2011
    jaytee
    An episode of Party Down involves a silent auction.
  • August 12, 2011
    Arivne
    Rienrien/OP: There are a lot of auction examples in Auction Of Evil. Some of them may fit this trope. Below is one of them that does.

    Film
    • Played for laughs in The Adventure Of Sherlock Holmes Smarter Brother. When Professor Moriarty has an auction for the Redcliff Document he doesn't set a minimum bid. After a great deal of confusion over the conversion rates for the national currencies used in the bidding, Moriarty declares that the bidding will start at 5,000 pounds. Watch it here.
  • August 15, 2011
    Prfnoff
    This reads less like a trope than an aversion of several potential tropes, with unwarranted implications of Did Not Do The Research.
  • August 15, 2011
    benjamminsam
    ^ I disagree, I think this needs a lot of work and tightening up but it's such a far-reaching and common aspect of fiction that it goes beyond The Same But More Specific for Did Not Do The Research. All Swords Are Katanas, Spexico, All Deserts Have Cacti, etc. are also sub-tropes of Did Not Do The Reasearch. In my opinion, tropeable if more specific examples are found of different classes of this phenomenon, e.g., auction procedure being messed up, the wrong type of auction given what is typical of the situation in real life...
  • August 16, 2011
    randomsurfer
    The Marx Brothers' first film The Coconuts features collusion. Groucho (property manager/auctioneer) wants Chico to bid up the auctions for plots of land so that they'll go for high prices, but Chico doesn't know when to stop. He outbids everybody for every lot; at one point he even outbids himself.

    I know I've seen sealed bids a time or two but don't recall which work(s). It was something like:
    Alice: My I present to you my new Widget Machine!
    demonstration of Widget Machine
    Bob: Alice, I would be honored if you'll allow me to make the first bid.
    Alice: Bob, you'd actually be the last bidder. Everyone else has already submitted their bids by sealed envelope.

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