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The irrationality of auctions

Auctions can be exciting and intriguing for the strategies deployed by bidders but also oftentimes diabolically irrational.

india Updated: Feb 04, 2013 01:39 IST
Ayaz Memon
Ayaz Memon
Hindustan Times

Auctions can be exciting and intriguing for the strategies deployed by bidders but also oftentimes diabolically irrational. Consider Michael Clarke, Ricky Ponting and RP Singh being sold for the same price at the IPL bazar in Chennai on Sunday; or Vernon Philander, going unsold for even $100,000. If the logic in this can be explained, I'm Don Bradman.

But in such incongruity is also the appeal of auctions: where hard logic can become subservient to perception, ego, whim, fancy - and yes, lack of knowledge too. I recall an auction at the Oberoi hotel in 1985 where memorabilia of the touring Davis Cup team went under the gavel with one very quirky result.

This was the first event undertaken by the newly formed Professional Management Group formed by Sunil Gavaskar and Sumedh Shah. The auctioneer was the irrepressible AFS 'Bobby' Talyarkhan and in attendance were the crème de la crème of Bombay. One of the items up for bid for was Stefan Edberg's racket.

Edberg, a junior Grand Slammer, had made an impressive entry into the professional ranks and won the Australian Open that year, but seemed to invite no interest from the audience despite the fervent pitch made by AFST.

The bid lingered tantalisingly at Rs10,000 for a while. I was tempted to raise my hand. But considering this represented almost an entire year's salary, funk set in. Finally, my then boss at Mid-Day, Tariq Ansari, won the prized racket for Rs12,000 if I remember correctly. Edberg went on to win five more Grand Slam titles.

That was not the first time I had been stymied at an auction. Some six-seven years earlier, having chosen journalism as my profession, I went to an auction on Carmichael Road to bid for a Brother typewriter, among the many goods listed in the newspaper ad. I could only watch in despair as the price of the second-hand typewriter rose from Rs200 to Rs 1,500.

On a salary of Rs400 a month, this was impossible to match. But what fascinated me is that somebody would pay even more than the price of a new typewriter of the same make. "It's to mix and match with other things in my study," said the buyer, "and I simply love the deep blue colour."

I scoured the Sunday papers but could not find any such auctions in the city. In the old days, these were an excellent way of picking up stuff that you couldn't easily get in India, generally for reasonable prices and for the little tickle of a gamble.

The comparatively well off too would flock to auctions announced by departing consular staff for instance, where you might be able to pick up an imported washing machine, a sofa set, a toaster or an oven. Bombay, despite its flourishing smugglers' markets, was deprived then compared to the cornucopia of shopping chances we have today.

Auctions in those days were not just about art and celebrities: they were fun and socially acceptable ways of picking up things you needed and getting rid of stuff you no longer wanted. The hub of such activity was south Bombay. All the consulates were here - the Bandra-Kurla complex was still a marsh that had tried to become a drive-in movie theatre.

To get back to the IPL auction, unlike some purists who cringe at "players being sold like cattle", I don't find it distasteful; rather a sign of the times we live in. And for all the illogic that some bids might reflect, they also make for some great stories.

Imagine the Khan brothers, Irfan and Yusuf, earning 4 million USD every year though neither is in the Indian team now. Their muezzin father, I am sure, can't stop invoking the name of the lord for the wisdom in allowing him to teach his boys this wonderful game.