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by:© Steve Carmody


   The great thing about doing business over the internet is that its easy . Just about any product you want is only a couple of keystrokes away. Web commerce is also a plus for the environment. The natural resources expended for any given purchase is vastly reduced when we let the UPS man do the driving. And the variety of products at your fingertips is, well, overwhelming.

   One of the more interesting presences in the e-commerce world is the internet auction. And among auction categories, musical instruments are right up there in terms of volume of offerings.

   Auction buying can be an exiting atmosphere. If you've ever been to a live auction you know about the adrenaline rush of being involved in a rapidly escalating grab at a sometimes unique prize. And the auctioneers banter can be mesmerizing. I'll never forget bidding on a French violin in a big warehouse auction site a few years back. I had seen an ad mentioning "old violins" amongst a sea of (in my opinion) more mundane items. So I went to the preview, about an hour before the start. There were a couple of beat up fiddles, but there was one very fine looking French labeled violin.

   I casually examined it, continued on around the room, and then kept my eye on it, checking out the other potential buyers. There were just a couple people who seemed to notice it, so I was primed to pick it up at a bargain price.

   I got my numbered placard and took a seat . The auction started and when the french violin came up I got a little rush as the bidding started. 25, 35 ,50, 75, 100, by the time it reached $200.00 there were three of us bidding on it , by the time it reached $400.00 there were two of us and when it reached $550.00 I realized that - 1. I had $600.00 with me and the buyers premium was 10% ( In other words, with the commission due to the auction house, I was already overbidding my wallet) and - 2. I really didn't have a clue as to the actual worth of the instrument, nor the amount of work it might take to make it playable. While I knew guitars pretty well, I was neither a violin player nor a violin repairman . So I got out.

   Maybe I passed on a $20,000 gem or maybe the other guy got stuck with a dog, but the reality was, I had no business bidding in the first place because I didn't really know what I was getting into. And I had held the instrument and examined it.

   This gets to the "rub" of internet auctions. In a "traditional" auction there is always a period of examination of the product on the block. And while an examination period is still not enough to be certain what you are bidding on, on the web the best you get is a photograph and sometimes not even that. A description of an instrument could be , innocently , incorrect . And ultimately, the quality and condition of an instrument cannot really be evaluated until you pick it up and play it.

   This distance between buyer and seller presents a challenge to a smooth transaction. And ultimately, the onus (what a great word!) is on the buyer. If you are the high bidder, you own it, for better or worse. Most web auction sites state this in writing if you read the participation agreements.

This is not to say that internet auctions are , therefore, a waste of time but ,rather, that the ease of participation belies an actual need to be an even more informed buyer.

   Within the last three weeks two instruments have come into my shop that were purchased in "virtual" auctions. In both cases the owner thought they had gotten a great deal , only to realize that each needed extensive work to be playable .

   Unless otherwise stated, an instrument purchased in a music store has some sort of warrant to be a playable item . Any instrument you buy from a reputable mailorder house entails a period to examine and reject the instrument if you are not satisfied. You don't get that option at auction, and that 's the understanding.

   Why do we by at auction ? Well, for some, it's to get something we just couldn't get elsewhere. But other times it is because we think we can get a really good deal. And in both cases this is sometimes true.

Why do we sell at auction ? Sometimes it is because we just need to sell what we don't need, and need to sell it by a date certain ( essentially -now!). The other reason is that we hope we can get more than we would have thought for what we have.

   This is why when you buy at auction to get a good deal you have to buy smart.

   Here are some considerations.

   1. If you are not very knowledgeable about what you are bidding on, and you are paying cash (as opposed to a credit card) don't bid more than you than you can afford to lose. That's just reality.

   2. If you are not clear about the condition of an instrument - ask.. Most internet auction sites provide the bidder the ability to e-mail the seller with questions about the instrument. On an older instrument ask about the playablity of the instrument if this is not mentioned in the description. If the person say s they don't know , indicate that your bid will be contingent on the playability of the instrument ( assuming you want to play it...). This doesn't guarantee your satisfaction , but it gives you a leg to stand on if you have a dispute with the seller.

   3. Pay with a credit card if you can. You have some rights associated with C-card transactions. Of course, if someone can accept a credit card they are most likely in business, so you are essentially buying from a store ( nothing wrong with that , but it takes a little bit of the potential for a " really good deal" out of the picture ).

   4. Unless otherwise stated, shipping costs are generally the responsibility of the buyer, so calculate this cost into your final price.

   5. Most items have a "reserve" amount below which the item will not be sold. The "bidding" on a 1941 OO-42 Martin opening at $900.00 means nothing until it reaches the $12,000.00 if the seller has indicated it as the reserve. So don't be enticed by ridiculously low opening bids. Check back in the last hour of bidding, these are the numbers that count.

   6. Read the auction site's user agreement before you start bidding.

   7. Buy smart. If you don't know what the item you are bidding on is worth, don't bid.

   As the popularity of on-line auctions increases buyer concerns are being addressed. But, ultimately, auction buying is a game of skill, so learn the rules and buy smart.