Auction Action by
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I alluded to some auctioning activities I had participated in in my recent “To DIY For” story, where I spoke of acquiring sets of “players” for the vintage hockey game that I bought at a lighting store in Milwaukee and then fitted on a table I built from old shelving. Here it is:

The players are actually just fancified metal paddles to pass and shoot the marble “puck,” but, in my incurably nostalgic way, I wanted to acquire players wearing the uniforms of all six of the original National Hockey League (“NHL”) teams that played when I was a kid and first owned the game (c.1960); The game I had just bought had only come with the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs, the two Canadian NHL teams at that time.

I quickly realized that the best place to get something like a set of these players was on eBay, so off I went on my one and only auctioning adventure on it  — and hence my featured image. Happily, I did find a number of sellers of all of these other four teams’ players (though no sets of all four of them), so off I went to bid for them. This was a real learning experience.  At first, I bid early and substantially above the asking or then-bid price and felt confident, as the auction came near to its close, that my high bid would seal the deal.  But I soon realized — the hard way — that the canny bidders waited until the very end of the auction to place a slightly higher bid so that it was impossible in the time remaining to out-bid it.  Having been chastened by losing a few bids this way, and grateful (but nervous) about the remaining sets of these players still out there, I finally won them all with ridiculously high bids at, literally, the last second of the various auctions.  The exhilaration I felt when I finally scored these little uniformed metal objects was disproportionate and, indeed, ridiculous, but probably typical.  I won’t say how much I ended up paying all in all, but, like most happily over-paying auction winners, I will just say “It was worth it.”

Here is the game as currently set up with, of course, my now-home team Boston Bruins and, equally of course, the Bruins’ long-standing archrivals, the New York Rangers:

And, for the record, here are most of the players on the other four NHL teams, who are safely stored, not in a locker room, but in the box some of them were sent to me in, now protectively wrapped in a Ziploc:

To be honest, I’m not sure when, if ever, any of the other four teams will make it onto the “ice.”  However, if Laurie ever drops by to play, I’d bring out the Chicago Black Hawks in her honor, or, if Betsy ever drops by, I’d bring out the Detroit Red Wings in her (childhood) honor.  More likely is that my old KPMG buddy Dennis, who lives in Toronto and, like every Canadian boy of our generation, also had this hockey game, might come to Boston for a KPMG “Mad Dog Crew” reunion (I was “Mad Dog,” of course).  In which case, I’d definitely bring out the Maple Leafs in his honor, eh?

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Let me now cause a little Retro whiplash by switching gears completely to my experience on the “sell side” of auctions over the years.

As previously noted, I was very active at the Bank Street College of Education in New York for many years, including serving as the chair of its board. Early on, Bank Street’s big fund raiser was, like many non-profits, a charity auction.  We later, and very wisely, switched to an annual dinner at which we bestowed honorary degrees.

The Bank Street auction was an enormous amount of work each year, starting with securing all the fancy items to be bid upon like airline tickets, resort and vacation home stays, and tickets to Mets and Yankee games and Broadway shows. But what made the effort particularly difficult was the mindset of many of the members of the Bank Street community.  As New Yorkers would understand, Upper West Siders (and Bank Street, despite its name, is now located on West 112th Street), while they are incredibly progressive thinkers, are also incredibly frugal.  So, to many of them, an auction — even a charity auction — meant not so much a chance to give generously to a beloved local institution as much as a chance to grab themselves a bargain.  As a result, getting them to really open up their pocketbooks and happily overpay at the auction for these items was an enormous and generally unsuccessful struggle. To put it in finance guys’ terms, the ROI (“return on investment”) on these auctions, especially given all the time and effort to secure the items, was depressingly low.

Because of my Bank Street background, I was later asked to join the board of PASE (Partnership for After School Education), another wonderful New York institution and equally progressive.  To raise funds, PASE has long had an annual dinner.  At some point a few years ago, almost as an afterthought (and, thinking of Bank Street, not with my particular encouragement), PASE decided to have a brief auction during dessert at the dinner.

For the first few years, PASE’s auction very much resembled Bank Street’s: luxury items, a lot of effort, and not a whole lot of return.  But, more recently, the PASE auction morphed into something of a hybrid which, besides offering the usual items to bid on, also included a number of more purely donations, albeit dressed up as something tangible; e.g., “For $____, PASE can provides places for three students in its Summer Learning Program.”  These “items” went over very well, especially as we started using a computerized, but easy-to-use, bidding process with iPhone-like devices and had hired a professional auctioneer — witty and absolutely overflowing with enthusiasm —  to conduct the auction.  (He is pricey — I review his contract every year for PASE — but worth it.)

At this year’s annual dinner, held at the end of March (after having been postponed last year for obvious reasons), the auction metamorphosis was complete. Nothing to bid on at all, not even PASE programs.  Rather, with an updated computer system (just scan the code that was in the program on your own phone and you were all set to bid) and our same hyped-up auctioneer, bidding was purely for direct monetary contributions to PASE.  First, the auctioneer asked for $25,000 contributions. After charmingly squeezing every last one of those out of the crowd, he asked for $5,000 contributions, and so on down to much smaller numbers.  As the pledges came in and the numbers rose, they were projected on big screens all around the enormous room (a converted old bank building) and the auctioneer and the audience got more and more excited. By the end of the auction — probably no more than half an hour later — PASE had raised a record amount of $375,000 and everyone was happily digging into dessert. Some auction, no?

Thinking back the next day, I initially concluded that those parsimonious West Siders must have changed a fair bit over the years.  Plus, PASE has attracted a good number of Upper East Siders recently, stereotypically more likely to flaunt their wealth than their neighbors on the other side of Central Park.  But, as I thought about it even further, the real change was that the “auction” wasn’t really an auction at all anymore, at least by its usual definition.  Other than the satisfaction of donating to a worthy cause (and, yes, possibly impressing others with the size of one’s donation), the bidders had not actually won anything at all.  Not even some toy hockey players.  And the delightful irony of this was that, by changing the “auction” to simply being a (mis)label for purely charitble giving, it was more successful than ever.

All of this somehow reminded me of the famous closing line from the movie “The Usual Suspects,” as voiced by Kevin Spacey’s character:  “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”  But, in this case, I would re-phrase it as follows:  “The greatest trick God ever pulled was convincing the world that they had just won an auction.”


(The program cover from this year’s PASE dinner.)



Profile photo of John Shutkin John Shutkin

Characterizations: funny, right on!, well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    I’m glad you quickly learned the on-line trick about auctions, John. Indeed, all the bidding takes place in the last few minutes and there is no such thing as a shut-out bid. Dan has never purchased a car via an on-line auction, but he loves to follow them, as rare cars are frequently sold that way, over a several-day period. He’ll keep the tab open on the computer and announce to me what the price is for some rare old Porsche, but say, “Oh, it’s going to go for MUCH higher than THAT!” And he’s always correct, but those high bids always come in moments before the bidding closes and they are astronomically high.

    In my story, I chose to focus on one auction in which I played a large role, but we used to go to MANY charity events on the Vineyard every summer. One, to benefit Community Services (which was an overarching group, offering all sorts of services), for many years held THE auction every year, called the “Impossible Dreams” auction, because the items were things that couldn’t be bought, donated by the celebrity inhabitants of MV. The auctioneer was Art Buchwald and the items went for tens of thousands of dollars. It was great to just go and see who showed up and what these items sold for. One year, Carly Simon made a PB&J sandwich, sang “You’re So Vain” and told who the song was about to whomever bought the item (but he was sworn to secrecy). It was purchased by Dick Ebersole (former head of NBC Sports, husband of Susan St. James) for something like $100K. The auction would make close to a million dollars, but Art and so many of those crop of “celebrities” (Walter Cronkite, Mike Wallace, Katherine Graham) have also died. The young ones who come to the Vineyard now either don’t own homes, or don’t want publicity, so won’t participate and the luster is off this event. Other big events offer the same stuff year after year and draw the same crowd, all very in-bred.

    The way you describe your PASE event is efficient and (perhaps) anonymous? I was at one, some time ago like the way you first described it. Raise your paddle if you will donate “X” amount of dollars, “Y” amount, etc. Everyone could see how much you gave and we felt peer pressure. It didn’t feel good.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Great story about MV auction, Betsy, which sounds pretty exciting. And reminds me of the Robin Hood Foundation auctions at their annual galas which are legendary because you not only have celebrities aplenty — this is NYC, after all — but, literally, some of the richest folks on Wall Street bidding against one another, as much for bragging rights as anything. And they do like to brag. It raises millions every year. PASE should be so lucky.

  2. Suzy says:

    I am fascinated and astounded by your PASE auction where people bid on nothing! That seems like the scam of the century, although not really a scam, of course, because the bidders knew that they weren’t getting anything. Also love your saga of getting all the original hockey teams for your game on eBay, and how it took you a while to perfect the bidding strategy. A wonderful story about both sides of the auction game!

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Suzy. I share your astoundment. But, as they say, nice job if you can get it. As to the hockey game, I sometimes feel I ended up spending more on those players than real NHL players would have cost me.

  3. Marian says:

    What a cool take on all (three?) sides of auctions, John. You have more intestinal fortitude than I for bidding. It’s gratifying that the PASE “non-auction” could raise so much for a good cause. As a New York Rangers fan, I had to tread carefully the year I was in school in Boston (in California it didn’t matter). Love the hockey setup.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Marian. As a long-time NYer, I still have “feelings” for the NY teams. I was even at their great seventh game in 1994 when they (finally) won the Stanley Cup. But I’m sure I don’t have totell you about that game.

  4. Amazing John, what a grown-up lawyerly type will do for some little metal hockey players!
    I assume that game you describe is the same or similar to Knock Hockey, yes?

    Years ago we and another family took our 8 or 9 year-old boys to WildWood on the Jersey shore. As I remember the kids played an inordinate amount of knock hockey and somehow my son broke his front tooth.

    Then we spent an inordinate amount of time finding a dentist on a Saturday night!

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Dana, but not like Knock Hockey at all. That game is played by two people each using a miniature hockey stick in one of their hands. In this game, the people playing each have six knobs to twist around — using both their hands (and even that is not enough; think pianos with many keys). In turn, the knobs are connected by rods under the “ice” to the players — who look like actual, uniformed players — who pivot around so that their sticks hit a black marble “puck.” Later versions of this game allowed the players to “skate” up and down the ice in designated paths by pulling and pushing the rods as well as swiveling them. Knock Hockey is also fun but, again, a very different (and easier) game.

  5. Khati Hendry says:

    It sounds as if the enjoyment of the toy hockey players on their ersatz ice is well worth it to you both in education on how to bid, as well as money spent. The world of high-level charity fundraisers is not something I have experience with, but your investment in the auctioneer and change to virtual items seems to work wonders. It seems a little crazy that there are people out there with 25,000 or more to flash around a charity event, but the charities do depend on them. Better than buying a yacht maybe.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thaks, Khati. That is my thinking about the hockey players, too, but I wonder how much is rationalization.

      As to the charity auctions, I am reminded of Saul Alinsky, the community activist, being comfortable with people “doing the right thing for the wrong reason,” and I think this is an example of it. And, as to the yachts, I fully agree. Plus I think those folks could get a pretty sweet deal on a Russian oligarch’s yacht these days.

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    Your experience with the Bank Street Auctions and then the PACE dinner at which people gave to support a worthy cause without “winning” anything totally mirror my experience with auctions and fundraising for a not-for-profit preschool. There was something about bidding for actual items that made people also want to get a bargain. They rarely went for more than their actual value. A professional auctioneer made a big difference, as did simply asking people to donate.

    On another note, I remember those hockey games from my brothers’ era. Being a girl growing up in a pretty sexist household, my father never took me to a Red Wings game (or any other live sport). The one time he did get a ticket for me for a Tigers game, I had the mumps. I guess I am a Black Hawks fan now, but not really, although I would love to have a chance to play that old game.

    • John Shutkin says:

      I thought you might have similar experiences, Laurie. Though, as you will see from my comment, you did Bank Street one better at Cherry.
      Sorry about the hockey (and other sports) games. Anyhow, mi rink is su rink — Red Wings or Black Hawks.

  7. Dave Ventre says:

    The picture of the hockey game brought back some memories for sure. I got one for a long-ago Christmas (Rangers on one side, can’t remember the other). Me and the neighbor kids played so much and so aggressively that is soon started coming apart. Knowing my Dad and his old cronies, I am guessing that it “fell off a truck” on the Hoboken waterfront and wasn’t top of the line quality!

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Dave. It is/was a great game. And I’m figuring that it had to be the Bruins on the other side of your game, as they usually sold the game with the two traditional rival teams: Rangers v. Bruins (East Coast); Red Wings v. Black Hawks (Midwest) and, of course, Canadians v. Maple Leaves (Canada). With many years of expansion, as you know, tough to do now. I mean, who are the Columbus Blue Jackets’ big rivals? (Though maybe the Red Wings, to parrot the Ohio State/Michigan rivalry.)

  8. Jim Willis says:

    I enjoyed your story, John, and your experience with eBay sounds familiar. I finally won one of those last-minute bidding wars just this week when I was high bidder on a guitar. I’ve gotten several through eBay, although most I’ve just bought via the “buy now” price. I love your hockey game and table, too.

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