In the early days of Internet auctions, bargains where plentiful and risks where high. Most full time antique paper, autograph and Scripophily dealers had not yet found the Internet or online auction houses like Ebay. It was left to estate sale enthusiasts and collectors getting rid of duplicate material to fill the void. Reserves where considered "unfriendly" and where rarely used. The result was low starting bids, even for top quality items. Competitive bidding was also rare. Only a fraction of the public had Internet access and most of them where still unwilling to give out personal information online. Few sellers took credit cards and there was limited use of images in auction descriptions. In general, buying from an online auction was a harrowing experience. But those of us willing to take the risks did very well indeed.Today, the game is entirely different. Every major dealer is online, and most both buy and sell at online auctions. Images are now easily captured and included in descriptions. Even small sellers take credit cards and a variety of other electronic payment methods. This has lead to a much-improved buying experience and huge growth in the number of bidders. These days, dealers often list items at auction with a minimum or reserve bids equal to their full retail value. In other words, bargains are few but the risks are low. But bargains remain, and the definition of "a bargain" is relative. For dealers, a bargain is something they can turn around overnight and sell for twice the price. They don't care if its mining stock from the 1850's or a modern Internet company gone belly up. The buying decision is strictly based on profit potential. The better the auction buyer they are, the more money they make. For collectors, the buy decision is far more emotional. How much is too much for a prized piece needed to complete a collection? In such cases your goal becomes to win the piece, but to do so at the best possible price. The purchase is a bargain if you pay less than the maximum you were will to spend. Since most collectors have limited budgets, better auction buying habits will lead to a better collection. The rest of this article discusses specific techniques to improve your chances of finding and winning those bargains. You may already be using some of them. You can be sure that at least some of your competition is using all of them. Finding the Good Auctions 1) Do not focus your search in the primary category. Your best shot at a real bargain is to find an auction that most of your competition never even sees. This is practically impossible with items listed in the obvious place. For example, Ebay has a Scripophily section under coins. Everyone who collects stocks knows this and checks that category often. When you bid on an item in this category, you can be sure that many knowledgeable dealers and collectors has seen it and either deemed it uninteresting or are planning to bid against you. Your chances of finding a bargain here are small and you'll have to expect to pay a near-retail price. Instead, use the advanced search capabilities of the auction site to get data from all categories. Because words like "stock" and "certificate" are used in so many auctions, many Scipophilists will give up trying to find auctions by string searches. Use this to your advantage. Be clever and use words like 'share' and 'vignette' instead. Ebay also has a new category search. Enter a string such as 'stock share' in this search and get a submenu of all categories that have matches along with the quantity of matches in each. It's amazing where some sellers will put certificate auctions. The less obvious the place the lower the final price will probably be. 2) Use wildcard and limited searches. All the major auction sites have advance string searches. You can enter very complex search criteria. Wildcards and limiting search criteria are the key to using this feature successfully. Remember that some sellers do not know about Scripophily or how best to describe items. It's also amazing how often a seller will misspell a word like certificate. Use "cert*" instead of "certificate" in your search string. In this case, the asterisk will force a match on any word starting with "cert", finding "certifecate" as well as "certificate". Also, limit your searches by removing items that probably don't interest you. For example, whenever I search on the word "stock", I include "-car -auto" on the search string. Many lots for real cars and model cars include the word "stock". The minus symbol in front of a word causes those lots to be removed from the result set, reduce how many lots need to be looked through. This works for me because I'm not interested in auto stocks. Try lots of combinations. Remember, the harder it is to find an item, the fewer bidders you'll be competing with. 3) Let the professionals do the work for you. This may seem like cheating but it's a wonderful technique for those of us with busy schedules. Once you've been buying on auction sites for a while, you'll learn who the big buyers are in your category of interest. Generally these folks spend lots of time surfing the auction sites for the best material. Many of these buyers like to place bids on items as soon as they find it. The bid is usually low and meant to help them relocate the item when the auction is coming to a conclusion. This is a mistake that will cost them. For example, on Ebay you can search for auctions based on the usernames of people who have bid on them. By performing "Bidder" searches on three or four large buyers, you'll locate 90% of the quality material available at any onetime. The same searches can also be applied to closed auctions. You can use them to see what the large dealers are buying and more importantly, how much they're paying. 4) Do not place bids on items when you find them. Just as you can watch what others bid on, they can watch what you bid on. Don't let your hard search work be given away to a competitor. Wait till the end of the auction to bid. Bookmark found auctions instead. On most browsers this is done with the "Favorites" menu option. Just select the "Add to Favorites" item from this menu and the location will be stored for you. All stored locations will be listed under "Favorites". 5) Use your browsers "Open in New Window" feature. One way to view more lots in a shorter amount of time is to keep your search result or listings window open while looking at specific auctions. When viewing a list of auctions, most people will use the left mouse button to click on a link to an auction lot they're interested in. This auction then loads into the browser. After viewing, the "back" button is pressed to return to the list. Many times, this list must again be loaded from the auction site's server. A faster technique is to keep the list open in one window while opening the auction in a separate window. This can be easily done in most browsers by clicking the right mouse button on the auction link instead of the left. The right mouse button will bring up a pop-up menu. One of the options on this menu will be "Open in New Window". Selecting this option opens a new window for auction while also leaving the already loaded list loaded. Some browser versions go even one step further. They leave your focus on the list (old window) instead of the auction lot (new window). This is handy because it allows you to open additional auctions using the same "Open in New Window" feature without having to go back and forth between windows. I usually read down a search list and open a window for each lot I'm interested in before actually viewing the contents of the new windows. This gives the images in the auctions a chance to load while I'm working with the search results. I then advance the search to the next page and move to each auction I've already opened while waiting for the next list to load. Once you're done viewing or bidding on the lot in the new window, you should close it. 6) Take chances on new Sellers, especially for lower priced items. Many people do not like to bid on items from sellers with little or new feedback. They're skittishness works to your advantage. Again, the fewer the biddings the better the deal. Of course, you're taking on more risk. But over the long run your bad buying experiences will be outweighed by the gains you make by taking such chances, especially with the kinds of material we're dealing with. 7) Ask questions. Many descriptions are inadequate. When something is not specified or is unclear, email the seller, asking for specific information. Most sellers are happy to respond. Any information you gain by communicating directly with the seller gives you another advantage over your competition. Be especially inquisitive about shipping expenses if they're not clearly referenced. Some sellers are intentional vague about these charges so they can adjust them based on the priced realized. Tips for placing bids that win at the lowest possible price 1) Bid only once on any single item. Multiple bids can lead to bidding wars and as a buyer; bidding wars are your worst enemy. Before you bid, determine the true maximum price your willing to pay. Do not bid until you're sure of that price, and make a single bid as close to the end of the auction as possible. If your bid was not high enough, do not bid again. If the item was worth $100 to you 5 minutes ago, it shouldn't be worth $150 to you now, just because someone else thinks it worth $125. 2) Snipe. Much has been written about Sniping. Its a horribly practice that drives me crazy. It also works so I highly recommend it. "Sniping" is when someone places a bid on item in the very last moments before the auction closes. A good snipe is one that does not leave enough time for any competitor to see your bid and raise it. Sniping will save you money. It keeps you from entering bidding wars and stops your bid from being raised by someone else who's using your bid to guide his own. The best way to snipe is to use multiple browser windows. Open two browser windows. Call up the item's auction page in both. In the first window, enter your bid info and review the bid. Stand ready with your username and password entered for final submission. In the second window, refresh every few seconds until no more than 20 seconds remain. Then return to the first window and submit your bid. Sniping does involve some risk. If the auction house's server gets busy or you lose your Internet connection, you're bid may be lost. I once missed a lot because I mistyped my password. Web Resource Recommendations Use all the resources the web has to offer. Some of my favorites that are not commonly known are: 1) http://www.google.com/ Google is the best search engine on the planet. You'll be able to locate lots of online stores worldwide selling certificates and autographs. Many of the service providers that most people use today are actually going through the google engine. Go directly to the google web site and cut on the middleman, along with 80% of the advertising. 2) http://www.esnipe.com/ This site has a wonderful application. They enter snipe bids for you on Ebay. Simply give them the Ebay auction number, the amount you want to bid and the number of seconds remaining in the auction when you're bid should be placed. They connect to Ebay for you and make the bid. The service is free for auctions you don't win and even ones that you do if your winning bid is less then $25. Higher priced auctions can cost you up to 1%.