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The Bidding Fever : Elvis Presley's pajamas may be an auction prize to die for, but if you don't know what you're doing, you might lose your shirt.

March 10, 1995|MARYANN HAMMERS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Maryann Hammers is a regular contributor to The Times.

Auctions combine the thrill of the hunt with the danger of being swallowed by the prey. Since buyers set the price, the events can be a bargain hunter's paradise. "People can get stuff dirt-cheap," says Larry Wilson, owner of L & L Auction in Canoga Park. How cheap? A box of old books went for $1 at one of Wilson's weekly auctions; two antique chairs brought $4 each; the winning bid on an old manual typewriter was $5; a stack of National Enquirers from the '70s was $10.

But those who get caught up in the competitive spirit or carried away in the rush of excitement may find themselves paying massive amounts of money--such as the person who paid more than $900,000 for a bedroom set at J.C. Ames Auctioneers in North Hills. "It was a French antique, bronze on wood," explains auctioneer Jeffrey Ames.

OK, so it was a really nice bedroom set.

While antiques, collectibles, artwork and jewelry are among the most commonly auctioned items, virtually anything of value has been sold through the bidding process, including skyscrapers, airwave time and assets of failed savings and loans. Elvis Presley's pajama bottoms went for $2,250 in a Las Vegas auction; Barbra Streisand's toaster fetched $90 in a benefit for the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy; and a date with KTTV news anchorman John Beard recently brought $2,100 at a Big Brothers dinner.

"Maybe the strangest thing I've ever auctioned off was a vasectomy," says Ron Fausset, a Thousand Oaks auctioneer. A physician donated the operation as part of a school fund-raiser.

It's easy to get swept into the rapid-fire pace of an auction and spend more than you planned. "Auctions get emotional," auctioneer Robert Ingraham warned a packed house at a recent antiques and art auction at the Radisson Hotel in Agoura. "All of a sudden you look up and see your hand in the air, bidding away--and you don't know how it got up there."

Julie Brown, for one, is an addict.

"I'm hooked," the Simi Valley resident admits. "I can't stop going to auctions."

Brown lowers her voice conspiratorially. "You can get some really good deals here. I got an antique footstool for $5." She leans back in her chair, waiting for the bidding to begin at L & L Auction.

"But you have to be careful," warns Brown's friend Dick Knell of Chatsworth. He shakes his head sadly. "I paid $400 for an organ. It's all ornate with candleholders and a big mirror, something you'd expect Bela Lugosi to play. My wife is still trying to get rid of it." He sighs. "Another time my wife and I got carried away, and we started bidding against each other! She was bidding away with her right hand, and I was bidding with my left. We didn't notice each other."

Ingraham is a master at generating that kind of excitement. Like an evangelist at a revival meeting, the boyishly handsome, swift-talking auctioneer whips the audience into a frenzy. "Everyone say, 'HEY!' " he cries, his face red and streaked with sweat. "Now wave your bidding cards!" When the crowd is sufficiently churned up, the bidding begins.

Holding up a small bronze statuette, Ingraham sings: "Here we go! Who'll put 10 on this little piece, who'll put 20, 20, 20, got 20 . . . now 50, 50, 50, of course . . . 90, 90, you betcha, want 100, 100 . . ." The piece sold in a matter of seconds for $120.

An auctioneer's impossibly fast and hypnotically rhythmic patter can lull people into impulse bidding, buying--and sometimes regretting. It's easy to end up with something you don't need, can't use and don't want. Consider the hapless fellow who paid $2,300 in August for the sight-unseen contents of a few abandoned trunks in a Northridge storage room. Imagine his dismay when he discovered that the trunks contained three decomposing human bodies.

"Auctions work on your mind," auctioneer Wilson admits. "People get a kick out of the auctioneer's singsong chant, and they start thinking that something is worth more than it is." Even auction pros are not immune. Auctioneer Fausset, for example, once paid $30,000 for a collection of old windup phonographs. He expected to resell them at a huge profit, but instead ended up losing $10,000.

Auction-goers also must be on their guard for cons.

*

Some unethical auctioneers, for example, boost prices by "bidding the air" or "ghost bidding." That is, they pretend that someone in the crowd is competing for an item--when no one is. Items also may be less valuable than the auctioneer claims, or merchandise described as "antiques" or "authentic" may really be cheap reproductions.

Experts suggest that buyers can reduce their chance of getting scammed by sticking with established auction houses, rather than those that move from location to location with no home base.

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