Why you need to be careful with on-line auctions
For a few years now I have been a regular user of on-line whisky auctions to start boosting my collection, as well as selling some of my bottles that I have no further need to keep. Recently I have spent some time selling around 40 miniatures at auction and was very happy at the price that I received. I also was selling my Macallan Folio 5, which I needed to get rid of on account of the amount released – it didn’t have the rarity value that I desire to enable to keep it. Of course, I then had to contend with the flippers and those also offloading their Macallan purchases that didn’t meet their expectations.
Throughout this article, I am not going to mention any auctioneers by name, however I will give the websites of the auctioneers that I use for buying, selling or both.
While on-line auctions offer a relatively easy way of buying and selling there are a few things that you need to be aware of that can catch you out. This is in particularly true when you are trying to sell something at the same time as a lot of other people. Unfortunately this was the problem that I had when selling my Macallan, and it isn’t just the auction you are taking part in – there are often two or three on-line auctions running at the same time. Of course many of those in the market will often see the way prices are going between the auctions and will bid accordingly – if they get outbid on one auction site, it is no problem just to start bidding on another site.
In my case, I wanted to offload my Macallan as soon as possible, so I had to pick an auctioneer that was going to hold an auction soonest and that I was able to get the bottle submitted in time. One thing you have to consider is that some auctioneers have better exposure than others, but the flip side is that those auctioneers are also more likely to have more submissions of the same article when it comes to trying to offload a sought after release. One thing that counted against me was that one of the biggest auctions was taking place when my auction started, and it had 200 Macallan Folio 5 for sale. It goes without saying that the more there is of something available, this then suppresses the price somewhat, but the good thing is that for Macallan Folio Editions, the demand is there, so you shouldn’t suffer. Perhaps I should have put that in italics, as there are no guarantees.
If you are worried about the price that you may receive back for any sales, the important thing is to place a reserve on it. This usually costs an extra £4 – £7 depending on auctioneer. I cannot stress this enough – perhaps it is better not to sell something that doesn’t make it’s reserve, and gives you the chance to either re-submit it to another auction or perhaps keep to sell another day. It gives me no pleasure to report that one of my friends in the whisky community went to sell his Macallan Easter Elchies Black 2019 and the auctioneers recommended no reserve. To my friends dismay, there was 90 other bottles in the same auction and as a result lost around £100. So, if you need a return – set a reserve.
Setting a reserve is something I think is also being used by some to manipulate the market, especially in the case of new releases. Many auctioneers do not let you set a reserve above Recommended Retail Price (RRP) for 6 months after a new release in an attempt to help stop the flippers setting high reserves to guarantee them a return which in my view is greedy, immoral and detrimental to a whisky release where people see pound signs instead of the liquid in the bottle. Admittedly, the best this can do is just kick the can down the road in limiting the prices, and anybody is free to bid above the RRP, but at least limiting reserves helps others. One auctioneer that I deal with has said they use common sense and don’t limit any reserves but it’s on a case-by-case basis. If it’s not unreasonable, you’ll get a higher than RRP reserve.
Not all auctioneers are the same, and when thinking about the reserves I have seen on other auctions for Macallan Folio 5, one around the same time had a bid on it for £600 and still had not reached the reserve price. In my opinion, the auctioneer is assisting the flippers, and it’s a bit unfair to those who value the whisky over the profit. What was not understandable is that there were several others available in the same auction – so why would somebody bid on one bottle way over the price of others that were available in the same auction that were a lot cheaper. If there is a bottle I want in an auction, and there is more than one available, I bid one, then if I get outbid, I then bid on a cheaper one. I personally think there is more behind the bidding of a bottle that seems to have had more bidding action than others, but we will deal with it later.
Some auctioneers publish reserve prices, and I think that is a good idea, as you know straight away what is expected, and you can tell if somebody has overvalued the whisky. If the reserve is hidden, then you should only bid to a level that you are comfortable with and don’t be tempted to incrementally bid to find out what the reserve is as you may be stuck with a bottle you can’t afford or may be overpaying for.
And this is a really important point. Generally speaking in a conventional auction, you can see who you are bidding against, as there will be an assistant on a phone or at a computer terminal. With an on-line auction you don’t have that facility. Sniping a bid (bidding at the last moment) has been eliminated by on-line auction by any bidding automatically extending the auction, but shill bidding I think is also prevalent as well. While auctioneers say that they are on the lookout, sometimes the bidding patterns don’t make sense, when people are bidding on one item, when there is another one equally as good but a lot cheaper. My whisky auction insider says there is very little that can be done to detect this, as it will only really show up if using the same hub. If your friend or family relative is bidding from another location, there is pretty much no way of telling.
One other hazard of on-line auctions is that you are physically unable to check the merchandise. If you have any doubt at all, make sure that you contact the auctioneer – they will supply extra photos on request, and if it is practicable they may allow an in-person visit to inspect the item. Not so handy for those of us who live in the more remote areas. You need to be sure you understand what you are buying.
I cannot recommend this enough, and be aware of what you are buying. RESEARCH! Know the price for a given condition. I’ve seen many auctioneers optimistically list lots as rare, but they aren’t. A quick look through other auction sites will reveal how often these turn up. I was recently given a wee task to source a bottle with a specific distillation date as a birth date. This wasn’t the easiest to find, and certainly getting harder to source, but does this make it more expensive? No – it doesn’t. If one shows up at auction then you can bet your bottom dollar another one will eventually. Set your price as to what you want to pay and wait.
Deciding your price is crucial. By all means do not bid your maximum price straight away, as often people will keep bidding until they outbid you. Best put a lower maximum in, and as soon as you are outbid, bid again. That way you may be able to pay less than the maximum you were prepared to as some people give up when they see somebody consistently upbidding them.
One thing my auction insider let me know is that they are presented with a large amount of fakes. OK, perhaps not masses, but the percentage is higher than you might expect. I have one bottle that I bought at auction for £35 that was part of my bargain basement hoovering towards the end of an auction to buy a whisky from the 50’s or 60’s. I had to query it, as the volume and strength were not printed on the bottle, and the label felt wrong. While the auctioneer assured me that this bottle was not a fake, I have my doubts, therefore will not be drinking it, but use it as a show piece. Do not assume that the auctioneer has spotted a fake, as it isn’t always apparent, and if they are handling hundreds or thousands of bottles for one auction, there is the chance one may slip through. It is also wrong to assume it is high value bottles that are the ones being faked – those are the ones that are checked more closely. It will be the cheaper ones that may suffer from counterfeiting more often than not.
The archive at Macallan distillery when it opened in 2018 was found to contain suspicious bottles. If they can’t tell, what chance have you got?
My last point is that beware of auction hype. One auctioneer had a superlative auction of a private collection that was to be broken up. Yes, there was some spectacular bottles there, but they were in the minority. A lot of bottles were missing boxes or had low fill levels. Just because it was part of an extensive collection does not make that worth any more. In all it was quite disappointing, Due to the Coronavirus, I am not sure if the second part will go ahead as planned in April 2020, but we will wait and see. Given the quality of the first half, I am a bit underwhelmed. If you have done your research, you will know what it’s worth, and bid accordingly – don’t get carried away and overpay, unless it’s a must-have for your collection, though even then exercise a wee bit of caution.
But for all the pros and cons of on-line auctions, I have bought older bottlings a lot cheaper than I would have got them retail. I have been able to complete collections that would otherwise be impossible, and I have been able to drink some unusual and rarer whiskies. You just have to keep your head when everybody around you in the auction seem to be losing theirs.
There is a list of on-line whisky auction sites I use or regularly browse below.
Whisky Auctioneer – http://www.whiskyauctioneer.com
Just Whisky – www.just-whisky.co.uk
Whisky Hammer – http://www.whiskyhammer.com
Whisky Online Auctions – https://www.whisky-online.com/auctions/
The Grand Whisky Auction – http://www.thegrandwhiskyauction.com
Speyside Whisky Auctions – http://speysidewhiskyauctions.co.uk
Royal Mile Whisky Auctions – http://royalmilewhisky.auction
Robert Graham / Global Whisky Auctions – http://www.globalwhiskyauctions.com
WhiskyAuction.com (Based in Germany) – http://www.whiskyauction.com
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