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The Shill's Revenge

Brian Wolfe

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The Shill’s Revenge

A few days ago, over in the Japan Section, a discussion was started regarding the use of “shills”. If you have never visited the Japan Section you should do so, it is quite interesting and quickly becoming the place to go for researching Japanese medals and decorations.

A “shill”, in case you didn’t know, is a person who is employed by an auctioneer to drive up the bids so that the item sells for more than it normally would have.

Years ago and before the internet I used to dabble in antiques, buying, repairing and reselling them. This involved a lot of evenings spent in auction houses and estate sales. One auctioneer in particular kept several burly rotund fellows employed to move the items onto the stage and off again after the item had been auctioned off. When not engaged in this activity they would sit in large armchairs which were perched on folding tables like well fed yet dishevelled scavengers, at the rear of the bidder’s area. If you watched them closely one would always make an indiscrete bid if the item was not reaching the bid that the auctioneer was trying to reach. Remember, the higher the final bid the more the auction house profits in their “cut”. Now, with the advent of the internet and the auction sites available, more people than ever are placing bids and “attending” auctions from the comfort of their own homes. With this new venue comes the return of the old practise of employing shills, though in a slightly different way.

Today, regardless of the rules set out by the online auction sites, people are able to cheat through several means if they are inclined to do so. Spouses can each have an account and bid on the other partner’s items to run the bid higher. Other adult family members and friends can also perform these duties not even to mention the person who will set up two separate memberships and bid on their own items. I’m not sure if this is still the case but eBay used to charge extra to place a reserve bid on an item assuring the seller would get a minimum amount for the item that would be acceptable to the seller. Using one of these underhanded means circumvents this “legal” reserve bid option and at no extra cost; which finally brings me to the meat of my story.

There is a local collector that I was acquainted with through our wives who worked together. This fellow used to spend each and every day on eBay and bought and sold with a passion that surpassed the border between fanaticism and a sick obsession straight to the lunatic fringe. He had taken an early retirement for the armed forces and had a small pension so this allowed him the luxury, if not the funds, to sit in front of the computer screen all day long.

He had approached me several times to place bids on his items at what he considered a reserve bid, without having to pay eBay for their service. Each time he asked I declined.

As a bit more background information, he collected WWI medals named to members of his old regiment. One of the arrangements he made with me, that I agreed to, was that if he were away and not near a computer I would bid on items he was interested in so that he would not miss out on them. While he was away one time there was a BWM named to a Sergeant from his regiment offered for sale. I waited until near the end and not seeing his eBay name as a bidder placed a maximum bid high enough to assure I would “win” it for him. Unknown to me he had access to a computer and had been watching the medal himself. Being a paranoid and rather untrusting person he placed a very high maximum bid just before the auction closed (sniped) and won the item. He then wanted me to plead with the seller, a well known dealer here in Ontario, Canada, that he should only have to pay the price that my first bid would have come to and not the final bid. He even had the nerve to ask that I pose as his wife bidding on the item as his birthday gift. Talk about one sick individual! I flatly refused to do this. A day or two later I was contacted by the seller (remember we, my wife and I, are quite well known to this dealer) and asked for the facts as he had spun her several odd stories. I told her that she should ignore them and that I would purchase the medal if he didn’t want to pay the amount he had bid. Needless to say this fellow was enraged at my decision. He paid the deal the agreed upon price of his final bid. I didn’t tell him but I would have let him have the medal for what I paid if he hadn’t purchased it. The difference between the two bids was only twenty dollars. Actually I still considered him a friend at that time, (talk about gullible), and would have gifted the medal to him, had he not been such an ass.

Shortly after this he asked me once again to act as a shill on a couple of auctions he had going. One was an individual medal and the other was a small South African War group. By this time I had had it with him so I said I would do it under these conditions. He would tell me his “reserve” bid that he wanted me to assure and I would place a maximum bid higher than that. Then if my bid was the winning bid he would have to actually follow through and sell the item or items to me. In the end I did indeed win both auctions and I had placed my maximum well above what he wanted as I really did want these in my collection. I made the payment through Pay Pal and then, he went ballistic. He didn’t want to let me have the items and said he would refund my Pay Pal costs. I gave him a choice, either hand over the medals or explain to eBay why he had broken the rules regarding following through with the conditions set out by eBay and also why he was trying to use shills in his auction. I knew the names and eBay user names of two of his friends who were actively acting as shills for him and was ready to burn him. Yes, I am the type of person who, if you piss me off bad enough, will hug you as I pull the pin on the grenade!

In the end he acquiesced and let me have the medals after telling me what I could do with them. I didn’t follow his suggestion, of course, opting instead to place them in my collection. We haven’t spoken since and that’s alright by me as this is one time revenge, if not justice, was levied on a seller who was using shills.

Regards
Brian







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Interesting story - with a warning to all auction bidders. Some people are

just so unscrupulous.

In the UK it is a serious offence to create a 'ring' in order to purchase an

auction item below it's value. Mainly it is dealers' who do this - they

nominate one of the group to bid - the others holding back to keep the price down. Afterwards, they hold a small auction amongst themselves in the

car park to see who is the new owner. We used to keep an eye on these

groups and if money was seen to change hands they would be arrested.

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I once asked someone to shill bid for me... foolish me...

It was not with the intent of raising the price... but simply to get some movement... I had a Victorian medal on EBAY... I had put in up with a starting price of EUR600.... day after day... no bid....

1 day before the end i thought "Bloody hell... this wont do... have to wake the people up"... and with some misguided logic asked a friend to bid EUR600... just so a first bid was in....

Well... he won it for EUR600 as only bid, I kept the medal, paid the Ebay fees for a EUR600 euro sale... and was wiser the next day.... ;-)

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Interesting story - with a warning to all auction bidders. Some people are

just so unscrupulous.

In the UK it is a serious offence to create a 'ring' in order to purchase an

auction item below it's value. Mainly it is dealers' who do this - they

nominate one of the group to bid - the others holding back to keep the price down. Afterwards, they hold a small auction amongst themselves in the

car park to see who is the new owner. We used to keep an eye on these

groups and if money was seen to change hands they would be arrested.

Bidding pools, as they call them in the U.S., are also illegal. In my 25 years in the business, I've never seen one from either side of the gavel. Bear in mind it is perfectly legal for bidders to get together to buy an item "jointly" and then resell it "jointly" at a later date.

Safest way to bid: live, in person, on the telephone, or via the internet in real time.

Bill

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I have witnessed some strange things at big auctions. Certainly not saying anything illegal, but there does seem to be, lets say an 'understanding' amongst dealers around who to bid against or not. It seems the big guns do not take on each other, but if there is a private purchaser on the floor they seen to be fair game. Pushing prices well above anything most mere mortals can afford.

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