Government Auctions

Government Auctions are a Gem

Has the United States government got a deal for you. Government auctions provide bargain prices on a wider array of merchandise than you'll find in a the local Walmart. Inventory runs the world from cars, office furnishings, jewels, ambulances, Rolex watches, and race horses to polar ice breakers, military jeeps, NASA GPS systems, and even has sold the aircraft carrier Coral Sea (not kidding here).

With a bit of luck and timing, shrewd shoppers can find deals on pricey or unusual items. And for backyard inventors, the chance to comb through leftovers from government laboratories can be like letting a kid loose in Disneyland. "Some Trekkies snap up every electronic gizmo in sight," says Bill Tesh, chief of sales for the General Services Administration (GSA). "One even used government surplus to outfit his truck like the starship Enterprise."

The GSA, for instance, sells laboratory equipment like microscopes, centrifuges, and signal generators; office furniture; computers; electronic gear; and more than 40,000 used autos a year. Other federal agencies like the Resolution Trust Corporation hold public sales to dispose of resorts, houses, condos, hotels, and raw land from foreclosures and failed S & L's. the U.S. Postal Service unloads goods--televisions, CDs, cameras--in unclaimed packages. The Department of Defense would be happy to sell you, among other things, your very own DC-10. And the DEA, the Customs Service, the U.S. Marshals, and the IRS peddle contraband confiscated from drug lords, crime bosses, and tax delinquents.

Though street-level drug dealers tend to adorn themselves with gaudy baubles, crime kingpins' tastes are decidedly upscale. They collect expensive antiques, art--an Impressionist painting seized from a money launderer recently fetched $136,000--and rare coins. "Drug dealers like coins because they're easy to transport," says Dean Echols of Manheim Auctions in Atlanta, which handles many government sales. "You can walk through an airport with $500,000 worth of coins in your pocket and no one will suspect."

But don't expect to pick up a Porsche for $100 or a yacht for $200, since professional buyers scour these auctions for resale items and can bid up such undervalued items. And don't think you can outsmart the pros. "Amateurs can get good deals if they're careful," says Echols, "but they're not going to steal anything."

Do take advantage of the inspection period beforehand, which is usually on the previous day or a few hours before the auction begins. Carefully examine the merchandise and then figure out what comparable items would cost if they were being sold retail. To avoid getting swept up in bidding fever--and overpaying for something you don't really want--determine exactly what you want to buy and how much you intend to spend, and stick to it. It may even be wise to attend one auction as an observer just to get a feel for the action. "Take no money," advises Tesh, "and keep your hands in your pocket."

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