The air was tense in the room, where 30 or so people had gathered for an auction. All three bidders’ eyes were on a “luxury” Richard Mille watch – its authenticity undetermined.
While one might expect such a scene at a high-end auction house, this sale took place at a condominium apartment and the items up for grabs belonged to its occupants. These included five bottles of liquor, two flatscreen TVs, a coffee machine, a G-shock watch and even the living room’s ceiling fan.
The bidders were participating in a public auction known as a Sheriff’s Sale, where goods seized from a judgement debtor by an officer of the High Court are put up for sale.
The judgement debtor is the losing party in a lawsuit who is required to pay a judgement sum to the winning party. If he is unable to do so, his belongings are sold in a Sheriff’s Sale to settle the sum.
In such cases, the homes of the debtor are opened to the public for the duration of the auction to sell the items.
Specific to the High Court, Sheriff’s Sales take place almost monthly and items up for bidding are listed ahead of the auction. The State Courts’ equivalent of such auctions are known as the Bailiff’s Sales.
In 2016, 11 Sheriff’s Sales were held, while 20 were held last year. Around 15 have been held this year.
Apart from personal belongings, there are also sales for “immovable items”, which refer to land as well as things attached to the land such as buildings and homes. The High Court also deals with auctions of maritime vessels that have been seized.
Items that are unsold after an auction may be sold in another public auction or released back to the debtor.
Magnet for bargain hunters
The first Sheriff’s Sale that Yahoo News Singapore attended was held on 2 November at a condominium in Pasir Ris.
Around 30 bargain hunters participated in the auction, most of whom were middle-aged to elderly men.
Rag-and-bone man Tan Koon Poh, 80, said he attended Sheriff’s Sales in his free time in pursuit of good deals. While he declined to specify if he attended the auctions for business or personal reasons, he mentioned that he had previously purchased vehicles for his work from similar sales.
He added that he would receive text messages notifying him of upcoming sales from the auction houses.
By the time the 50-minute auction concluded, Tan was seen leaving with eight bottles of liquor, a television, speakers and a wooden watch display box.
He asked for help from fellow bargain hunters, Madam Ng and her husband, to transport his spoils to his mini-van.
Madam Ng, who declined to give her first name, left with a Casio G-shock watch after submitting a winning bid of $210. Speaking in Mandarin, the 61-year-old retiree said that she would resell the items she obtained to her contacts or online.
Often making bids for jewellery, furniture, watches or branded items, Madam Ng said that she had lost money from the 10 years she had spent attending these auctions. This usually happens when she discovers that the items she purchased are not genuine.
She declined to specify how much she had lost from Sheriff’s Sales over the years.
You get what you see
Ahead of the Sheriff Sales proceedings, the auctioneer is careful to disclaim that “what you see is what you get”. In other words, the authenticity or quality of the items up for auction is not guaranteed.
This meant that there was no way to guarantee that the Richard Mille watch put up for sale on 2 November was real.
Watches from the luxury brand often come with a six-digit price tag, a fact that bidders that day seemed aware of when they began haggling over the intricately designed piece.
The Richard Mille watch at the centre of a tense exchange despite its authenticity being unverified. (PHOTO: Wan Ting Koh / Yahoo News Singapore)
One of the bidders was a man who appeared to be in his 40s, dressed in a red checkered shirt with a Ted Baker bag slung across his body and a large silver watch on his wrist.
The man increased his bid by $1,000 each time while his opponents, a middle-aged couple, were more conservative in their bids. What went out for a starting bid of $200 soon entered into the thousands.
The final price: $22,000 – sold to the man with the silver watch. By contrast, the next most expensive item sold was the household’s liquor collection, which went for $1,500.
‘When the price is cheap, we buy’
Two weeks later, another Sheriff’s Sale was held at a three-room HDB flat in Tampines. Nearly half of the 13 people in attendance had also been present at the previous auction.
A brief affair, the auction ended in five minutes when the 23 items on offer were collectively sold.
Up for grabs this time were mostly household items such as a refrigerator, side tables, a sofa set and washing machine. With more than one attendee scoffing at the pickings, the entire lot – offered at a starting bid of $500 – was sold for $720.
One 52-year-old attendee, who wished to be known only as Mr Ang, valued the items sold at less then their auctioned price.
“I wanted the alcohol, but it’s only samples. I am disappointed,” said the part-time deliveryman, referring to the four bottles of liquor that were up for grabs.
A repeat participant, the woman who had gone for the Richard Mille watch in the previous auction, was the winning bidder for the items but declined to speak to Yahoo News Singapore.
When asked about the type of people who attended the auctions, another attendee, Selvarajan Letcheman, said that numerous secondhand shop owners like himself attended such events.
Selvarajan said that he would attend auctions to find secondhand items for his export business. He would then fix the items before exporting them overseas, to countries such as India and Africa.
“When the price is cheap, we buy,” said the 57-year-old, who has been attending such auctions for the past 15 years.
Gaining from someone’s loss
While many such as Selvarajan attend the auctions for a good deal, others were more critical of the events.
Jay, who attended the Pasir Ris proceedings for leisure, suggested that bargain hunters were profiting off another person’s misfortune.
“There is a negative connotation in this kind of situation,” said Jay, who works in finance and declined to give his full name.
“You are trying to take advantage of someone’s situation.”
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