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Personal Finance: Spice up the auction house

Bid-from-home auctions kick-off next Saturday with

a sale of pop memorabilia. How is it done and what

impact will it have on collectables?

The first live televised bid-from-home auction takes place next Saturday. Pressing the star key on your telephone could secure any of 72 lots of pop memorabilia as they come under the auctioneer's hammer - including a pair of signed knickers from each member of the female All Saints pop group, estimated to fetch pounds 200-pounds 300 each.

About 6.5 million homes will be able to watch the bidding, to be broadcast between 5-6pm on the cable and satellite channel Living. There will be about 120 bidders, who will be registered beforehand by the London auctioneers, Bonhams, and supplied with pin numbers to gain electronic access to the sale.

"They will be effectively in the saleroom", says Dr Andy Billington, project manager of The Auction Channel which has signed exclusive contracts with Bonhams, Brooks - the classic-car auctioneers - and the Swiss-based auctioneers, Antiquorum, giving rights to 1,700 forthcoming auctions. The dream is of three televised auctions a day - and 10 a day on the Internet.The computer screen will show digital images of the lots and record bids.

Bidding "live" from home could add another 800 bidders to each sale. At present, bidding is either in person, in the saleroom or by phone to an auction- house employee who signals bids to the auctioneer. It also is done with commission bids where a single bid is left in the auctioneer's "book" before the sale.

Phone bidding has been restricted by saleroom phones available and by the fact that - to guard against hoax calls - auction houses insist on telephoning the bidder by arrangement. This is costly, so the big auction houses allow person-to-person telephone bids only on lots estimated at lots of pounds 5,000 or more.

The new system is expected to appeal to established telephone bidders and commission bidders prevented by distance from attending sales. Participating auctioneers will be under pressure to publish accurate condition reports in their sale catalogues so that distant buyers feel confident in bidding sight-unseen.

Although push-button bids take only a 10th-of-a-second to register on the auctioneer's computer screen, Bonhams auctioneer Alexander Crum Ewing says it will not be as feverish as traditional forms of bidding.Billington has devised software that mimics the etiquette of the saleroom. Not only does bidding proceed by fixed increments of 10 per cent but bidders' identity numbers disappear from the screen after each round of bidding. Moreover, it mimics the auctioneer's etiquette of repeatedly asking the leading bidder if he wishes to bid more.

Saturday's auction - in aid of the Teenage Cancer Trust - also will be attended by up to 300 live bidders at its venue in the BAFTA headquarters in Piccadilly, west London. Electronic auctioneers should note that the new system will make it difficult to"take bids off the wall". It looks fishy if bids from hundreds of electronic bidders disappear from the screen during bidding.

The Independent Television Commission expressed concern about electronic "enticement" - especially with a sale of fab-pop memorabilia - hence the limited issue of pin numbers for this sale, and the insistence of pre- sale registration, which highlights lots the bidder will compete for and a credit check.

But is pop memorabilia the wow it used to be? Without safeguards, would pop-eyed youngsters be likely to run into debt by bidding madly for John Lennon's shopping list, Madonna's bra or, on offer in this sale, Spice Girl Mel's silver ball tongue-stud, estimated at pounds 300-pounds 400?

Hardly. A year ago - when some London pop memorabilia auctions were becoming clogged with cheap Beatles' merchandise - a Bonhams pop sale that sold a pitiful 25 per cent of its estimated value raised fears that the bubble had burst.

Today, pop auctions are leaner and meaner. Provenance is all-important. Auctioneers have learned that a pair of Buddy Holly's jazzy swimming trunks, even if lotted with a letter from his widow confirming that they belonged to his estate, will be unsold at an estimated pounds 700-pounds 900 - if the letter omits to confirm that he wore them.

The bidding pattern at Bonhams' last auction, last month indicates that, despite its success, bidders are cautious. Elvis still sells well. The acetate recording of "That's All Right, (Mama)" of 1954-55 fetched pounds 16,500 against an estimate of pounds 5,000-pounds 6,000. Bob Dylan still sells, so do the Rolling Stones and Elton John. It has become a nostalgia market for those advancing in years and income.

Beatles' merchandise has been selling better than ever. A drum of Margo of Mayfair Beatles talcum powder ,fetched pounds 100 and Beatles jigsaw puzzles have become a sound investment, also fetching about pounds 100. The slightly moth-eaten, green wool Mod jacket that John Lennon gave to Madame Tussaud's, estimated at pounds 800-pounds 1,200, was snapped up for pounds 200 at Bonhams last month, having been unsold at the previous sale.

Ex-Spice girl Geri Halliwell is selling some of her stage costumes and memorabilia for charity at a Sotheby's auction on 16 September (11am). Previous prices for Spice Girl gear indicate that it will sell well. Like the markets for Elvis and Elton memorabilia, Spice Girl prices are a reflection of popularity.

Bonhams auctioneer Ted Owen is trying to encourage his surprisingly cautious clientele to buy into different areas - such as New Wave rock posters which are the current craze in San Francisco. The artwork combines strains of comic-book, Hollywood and punk. Posters by the New Wave rising star Alan Forbes are regularly ignored at estimates of pounds 100-pounds 200 in his sales of "High Art". He has had 1,000 copies printed of Forbes's commemorative poster for the Teenage Cancer Trust televised sale. They are available at pounds 15 each and the original artwork is estimated pounds 800-pounds 1,000 in the sale.

It is hard to understand why such a seemingly loony market can be, at bottom, so conservative but it often takes several auctions to establish a new collectable.

`The Auction Channel': sale catalogues (01179 349292); registration by 2 September; Forbes posters pounds 15 plus pounds 3 p&p (0171-393 3952)