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  • Writer's pictureMike Brandly, Auctioneer

Auctions and a pandemic

There probably isn’t an auctioneer in the United States not wondering how the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic might affect his or her own livelihood as well as the auction industry as a whole.

Live auctions (and some online auction previews/pickups) generally gather large groups of people together in the same immediate area. Relatedly, many states have ordered bans on mass gatherings (for instance, no more than ‘x’ people in the same confined area) and scientists are recommending “social distancing.”

Many live and simulcast auctioneers have delayed, postponed or canceled upcoming auction events. Other auctioneers have made the decision to continue having live events — moving them outdoors (in less confined areas) and some have ignored the government’s orders/recommendations altogether and continued operating as normal.

One need only view social media to see that as an industry, we are divided on the correct response. Many say that we owe our staff, sellers, bidders/buyers and our communities good practices promoting safety. They find it egregious for any auctioneer to have a live auction event constituting a “mass gathering.”

We’ve been asked if auctioneers can control the size of their live bidder pools? They likely can by taking measures such as requiring a deposit to register or limiting attendance to the first ‘x’ people. Of course, such policies should be discussed with sellers and be implemented only after consent from those owners.

For those who think crowd sizes can’t be controlled, they are all the time. We’ve all seen signs dictating “maximum occupancy” to comply with fire and building codes. As we’ve consistently held, auctioneers can have pre-determined registration requirements, however not capricious/arbitrary policies.

Further, those who are elderly or otherwise have compromised immune systems — or those with symptoms — should stay at home or otherwise self-quarantine as they are able. Nobody should assume the entire risk of this disease lies completely with the auctioneer and not the customer.

In addition to the questions from auctioneers about how they may be able to continue to have live auctions, we’ve talked to just as many auctioneers who feel strongly that we should all suspend, at least temporarily, any live auction event in the best interest of our industry and our fellow citizens.

One auctioneer I spoke to regarding a state’s mandate against mass gatherings explained that her company would not be holding live auctions during this time. She said, “We want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.” They are moving their auctions to online-only for the time being and attempting to minimize crowd sizes for pickup/preview.

As well, there has been considerable discussion over potential penalties auctioneers could face should they decide to defy a government’s order. While there’s generally been no public announcement about fines/charges, etc. that could be levied, it does seem reasonable to believe that someone going against the orders might find themselves in jeopardy.

The devastating impact of these mass gathering bans will be felt by a large number of auctioneers and their families. Many auctioneers have told me that they won’t be able to survive financially for more than a couple of weeks or a month, without having auctions.

Another auctioneer related that his “auction of a lifetime” is coming up within the next few weeks. He described it as the one he’s been dreaming about his whole career, having invested months in the planning and a large amount of money in advertising, only to find out that according to his state government, he will be unable to hold the event as planned.

After much thought, research and discussion, we’ve chosen to rely on the scientific and health experts who feel that the seriousness of this virus cannot be discounted. I firmly believe this crisis is not a hoax, conspiracy nor fully explored given the severe lack of testing.

Like many auctioneers who hold live events, it was not an easy decision to make but for our company, we’ve decided to suspend our live auctions for the time being. But we will be counting down the time until we can get back to doing what we love.

So, where does this leave our industry? What are the long-term (maybe even permanent) effects of the current “crowd” bans? Just as none of knows what the fallout will be to us and our fellow auctioneers, we also don’t know what the long-term effects will be for our communities, our families, and our country.

Mike Brandly, Auctioneer, CAI, CAS, AARE has been an auctioneer and certified appraiser for over 30 years. His company’s auctions are located at: Mike Brandly, Auctioneer, RES Auction Services and Goodwill Columbus Car Auction. He serves as Distinguished Faculty at Hondros College, Executive Director of The Ohio Auction School, an Instructor at the National Auctioneers Association’s Designation Academy and America’s Auction Academy. He is faculty at the Certified Auctioneers Institute held at Indiana University and is approved by the The Supreme Court of Ohio for attorney education.

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