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.