Auction Buying Guide
A row of games at Auction
Arcade Auctions are held to auction off coin-op amusement equipment. This primarily means old used Arcade and Pinball machines but can include any variety of items. It is not uncommon to see anything and everything related to the amusement industry at an Auction. Everything from bar stools, to electronics testing equipment to vending and related entertainment items can show up in quantity. You may even see totally unrelated items in small (or unfortunately sometimes large) numbers. The main draw is of course still stand-up Video Games and Pinball machines.The first thing to know going into all of this is that Arcade Auctions didn't start out catering to the home buying public at all. A decade ago the scenerio was quite different. Arcades were still alive (although starting to decline) so the Auctions were still primarily for Operators (Arcade and game route owners). There were collectors of course, but in smaller numbers and they were looked upon as a usefull but somewhat annoying sub-group. Collectors didn't bring machines usually and they didn't buy in bulk, but they would snap up those old games that no longer earned any money, so overall it was a beneficial arrangement. Basically, we were the bottom feeders taking what nobody else wanted. As time progressed and the Arcades started to decline the home buyers and collectors started to make up a larger and larger percentage of the buyers at auctions. The auction houses started to embrace and even court these new buyers more and more until finally we reached at point where the home buyers and home re-sellers outnumbered the operators.
The point of all of this is that even though the focus of Arcade Auctions have changed they are still for the most part run like they were back in the old days. They're fast, they can be tricky and at the end of the day everyone is out to make a dollar, not ensure customer satisfaction. In Florida we used to have several Auction houses including Super Auctions, USAA and smaller outfits like ASAP. These days only Super Auctions runs set auctions in Florida, primarily in Orlando. Just keep in mind that going to an Auction isn't like going to a store, or even like your typical Antique auction down at the civic center. If you've never been to a professional trade auction before, it might be a bit of shock. Hopefully this guide will prepare you. (Don't worry, its easier than it sounds).
First and foremost you need to have a budget in mind. Get a set amount of money and stick to it. Typically it takes $100-$200 to walk away with a working arcade machine or at least $700-$1,000 for a decent Pinball. Also, you need a way to transport the machine from the Auction. Typically they want the machines out that day, so this is something that needs to be arranged well in advance of the auction. You can sometimes find somebody at the auction willing to deliver your game for you, but don't count on it. Even if you do find somebody expect to pay a fee.
You will also need some tools. First you need a good screwdriver or screwdriver set. Chances are you'll have some disassembling to do if you buy something. Don't forget a flash light and some rope. Other general tools and items are a good idea as well, such as wrenches, rope etc. Finally bring your own extension cord. During the preview time you'll get to test out all the games, but don't expect the one you want to be powered on or even plugged in!
Obviously don't forget to bring money. Super Auctions no longer gives a discount for cash, so credit cards work just as well. They don't accept cheques! Also remember with Buyer's Premium and Sales Tax you are looking at over 20% in additional fees and taxes to the final hammer price. That means your $1,000 purchase is actually going to cost you $1,200+ at the register.
Testing out a Game at Auction
The preview period typically begins at 7am and runs until the auction actually starts. The auction is usually scheduled to start at 10am, but this is almost never the case. Still, you might as well assume the auction will start on time because it does happen and its easy to arrive too late and miss this crucial period. Normally after the auction starts all machines not being sold are turned off and any attempt to test them out later is heavily frowned upon as the game noises can make it hard for everyone to hear the games currently being sold.
During the preview period you are allowed to plug-in and test any game that is up for auction. This is where that extension cord comes in! Its always a good idea to test a machine that you intend to buy, as to avoid surprises later on. Also some defects or problems might not be apparent during the actual auction, and its also sometimes very hard to see whats going on with everyone crowded around one machine. Thus spending a few minutes of "hands on" testing is crucial if you are serious about a certain game or item.
So what should you look for? Cosmetic condition is fairly obvious. Check to make sure all the side art is complete and the condition meets your standards. Don't expect perfection, especially on something that is a decade old and spent most of its life in a bar. On the flip side, be careful about buying too much of a beater. In many cases replacement or reproduction artwork is hard to come by (if available at all) and can be quite expensive.
On Arcade machines the simple primary concern should probably be the monitor. In most cases its the most expensive part and also the hardest to fix. Look for a nice bright picture, good colours and a stable image. Bars, wavy lines or other issues could only need a minor adjustment or fix, but unless you are good with a soldering iron you may want to look for a game with a fully functional monitor up front. The actual function of the game is also important, if its a newer game make sure you watch the startup screens, especially the RAM/ROM tests. Make sure the game doesn't have power issues (randomly resets, etc.). The least important part of an Arcade machine is probably the joystick and buttons. Unless the game uses a non-standard setup (like a gun game or driving game) it probably uses standard arcade style joysticks and buttons which are fairly inexpensive and easy to replace. A few broken buttons might get you a deal. Be warned though, it is possible that non-responding buttons are the result of a PCB malfunction rather than a loose wire.
Pinball machines are a bit more tricky. The price is likely to be quite high so its imperative that you check the game out in detail. If its a 90s Williams/Bally machine look for a dot after the credits or free play, This means there is an error in the test mode. This could mean something as simple as a missing ball, but could mean something far more serious as well. If the coin door is unlocked don't be afraid to put the game in test mode and see if anything is wrong. Its also a good idea to research specific games before you buy to find out what the common problems and fixes are. Some games have toys and features which are notorious for breaking - some are easy and cheap to fix, some can be a nightmare. Find out if that broken gizmo is easily available for $50 or if it can't be had for less than $300 before you bid! Finally, always check the condition of the playfield. Games with a lot of wear especially down to the wood may require a new playfield to be restored to proper playing condition. In some cases a new playfield may cost almost as much as the game if you can even find one!
One good note of advice during the preview is don't look overly interested in any game no matter how much you actually want it. That guy standing next to you could be another interested party or he could be the owner. If he senses that you'll stop at nothing to own his game he'll know he can get away with bidding you up during the actual auction. So, even if you run across your holy grail.. take a look at it, play it a bit but look as indifferent as possible.
There is also one final note of Arcade Auction Etiquette during the preview: Be careful about poking around too much inside machines. While you are allowed to peek inside, check out the game and play it.. reaching up inside where the PCBs are housed or removing the back door may get you thrown out of the auction. What happens is some unethical folks will sabotage a game they like during the preview period. A cut wire or a broken fuse can totally disable a previously working game causing it to sell for much less during the actual auction. Auction workers and sellers are always on the lookout for this, so be careful!
You've checked out your games, you know what you want.. make sure you register for a bidders card. Its a fairly simple process and it never costs anything to simply sign up. Super Auctions will require your Drivers License, and if your new they may want to hold onto it during the auction. Basically they don't want somebody wandering in, bidding on everything then leaving without paying. If they hold it this may restrict your ability to leave during the auction to run to the local bank or fast food joint, etc. To save yourself time, you can also Pre-Register online for auctions held by Super Auctions.
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Final inspection before bidding
Sometime around 10am the actual auction will begin. They will auction one game off at a time in a winding path that will take them through the entire warehouse over the course of the next 5-10 hours. Depending on how the auctioneers are running that day it can go quick or painfully slow.
The actual bidding process is very easy, you see a game you want - raise your card to bid. If that was all there was to it, you wouldn't be reading this guide so lets go into how it really works.
The first thing to realize is that Auctions are designed to suck as much money as possible from the bidders. The Auctioneers get a percentage of the final hammer price from both you and the seller, so every extra dollar counts. First and foremost, keep your wits about you. Set a maximum price in your head and don't go above that. If you only pay what you think an item is worth it will be almost impossible for you to get ripped off. But still, lets look at the ways you can in fact, get ripped off.
First off this is perfectly legal. They will tell you straight up that anybody in the room can bid including the auctioneers, the owner.. anyone! For those who don't know Shill bidding is when the owner of the machine being auctioned bids against you to raise the price. The owner will try to bid you up as much as possible, he may even "win" his own machine which is called a "Buyback". While the auction house does charge a fee for "Buybacks" some operators who bring a large number of machines may pay almost nothing for a Buyback so there's really no reason why they won't shill the machine up to a price they are happy with. After awhile you can tell who owns which machine and sometimes its easier to just ask them flat out before the auction how much they want to avoid getting into a shill war. Is there anyway to avoid shill bidding? Not really. Your best bet is to not encourage it. Don't look overly excited about a piece thus inviting shill bids. Bid slowly and always appear to be one step away from backing out. (There is a use for agressive bidding as well, but lets keep it simple upfront). If the price rises above your maxium, back out and don't get stung overpaying.
During an auction there will be a large group of people huddled in one small area. Its very hard to see one side from the other thus its sometimes impossible to see who you are bidding against. Unfortunately the Auctioneers take advantage of this with a little tactic called "Shadow Bidding". Basically they will accept your bid then they will immediately accept a counter bid from the other side of the crowd. Problem is there is no counter bid! They will do this especially during the early part of the bidding where the bids are coming quickly. This is one reason to be carefull about agressive bidding. If it seems like you'll re-bid endlessly expect the Auctioneer to take advantage. Is this legal? Well anyone can bid can't they? I guess the shadow bid is the Auctioneer himself bidding, who knows but it happens almost every auction and frequently. How do you avoid it? Keep your eyes peeled. If you think you got shadow bid, wait before re-bidding. Normally once the Auctioneer realizes that your not going to bite he will eventually say something like "where's my bidder?" he will then "lose" his higher bidder and come back to you. I don't know how many times I had the high bid, was outbid only to have the auctioneer then point to me and say "you won it!" after a few minutes. If this happens to you make sure you only pay your last high bid and not the shadow bid price! Sometimes they'll try to get you to agree to the shadow bid to squeeze a few extra dollars!
I know the above sounds fairly shady, and while it is to a point, its the nature of these sort of auctions. Don't get paranoid and don't be afraid, just always know whats going on. Don't get suckered and don't pay more than you think something is worth and you'll always end up fine. Also keep in mind that the Auctioneers themselves know little about most games and will probably misrepresent them. If this is done by accident or on purpose, thats up for debate. "Working all the way" means the machine has a picture, even if its a blurry picture with only red. Every dead game was "working yesterday", all of the games are "rare" and sold for 5x their current going amount "in california" and every auction is a "steal" and they are constantly amazed that they even bother to come to Florida with the prices we pay. Most of the time its all in good fun, but keep in mind you are expected to know what you are bidding on - thats what the preview is for. Also Super Auctions is pretty good about helping you out. If you somehow manage to bid on the wrong machine or have serious buyers remorse, they will let you back out if you stop them within 1 machine. So as long as they haven't moved passed the machine next to yours, they will backup and re-auction it at no charge to you. They don't have to do this! Anything passed that and your stuck. In some cases they will re-auction the machine later for you, but you pay the difference in sales prices! Moral of the story is, don't bid unless you want it.
Unfortunately, some games don't make it home
Winning and leaving
After you win an auction, you will be able to pay for it at the front desk. They will give you a receipt and you will be able to take the game out. If you need help moving the machine there are always a few "roadies" or helpers available, but keep in mind they work for tips so have a few bucks handy for them. Sometimes these guys can be overly agressive and try to help even if you don't need it, don't be afraid to decline.
After you are done with all of your bidding feel free to leave at anytime. Auctions can go on well into the night (this never happens anymore unfortunately) depending on how many machines are available. Keep in mind though, sometimes the best deals come at the end.
General Tips and Hints
Auctions tend to run hot or cold. At some auctions prices will be very good, at others they will be very high. Much of this depends on the number of machines available, the makeup of the crowd and other factors. Don't be afraid to walk away empty handed if prices are skewing too high. There's always another auction around the corner. On the flip side know when prices are running low and take advantage, you don't know when this sort of opportunity will present itself again!
Avoid bidding on the first or last machine if there are multiple copies of the same game at an auction. The first one tends to go high because people don't know the proper price point and you flush out the people who just "have to have one". The last machine can skew high because its your last chance to own this title. Ones in the middle usually go cheaper.
You can get some rediculous deals at the end of an auction. Late in the day everyone has spent their money and packed up. Operators don't want to haul any more machines back than they have to so they will let some of their games go cheap. Also, the auctions usually put the better games in the front rows leaving the older less desirable games in the back. These games (typically known as "Dead Row" since most of the non-working games also end up here) can go for almost nothing. I've seen working games in good condition go for $5.00. Keep in mind you aren't going to find the super popular titles back here, but if you are just looking for a cabinet or a cheap game, this is your best bet.
If there is anyway you can bring a handcart or a dolly, do so. While you can usually borrow one at the auction, it can be a pain. The auction house usually has a few they lend out, but expect a wait.
For the benefit of everyone else, don't back your truck up to the loading area until you have your machine[s] ready to go. There is nothing more annoying that somebody with a pickup parked in front of the only loading dock holding everyone up while he just starts on packing up his games. In an ideal situation you should be loaded and out within a few minutes of pulling up.
Make sure you are bidding on what you think you are bidding on. It's not uncommon for games to be brought to auction that are hacked up to appear to be complete when they are not. Pinball machines with only christmas lights in the backbox, Arcade Games being run off $10 plug-and-play games and other horror stories are not unheard of! Always doublecheck everything and never assume a locked game is complete!l
If you'd still like more information on Auctions, I'd also recommend reading the original Auction Buying FAQ. It's a bit old at this point, but still has some great information. If you have questions, feel free to ask them on our Message Forum.