Bold bidders log on to a bargain: Going, going, gone] Martin Whybrow learns the tricks and pitfalls of buying hardware and software at auction

SOTHEBY'S it was not, although some of the items that went under the hammer at yesterday's computer auction at the Barbican Centre, London, did look like antiques. More than 1,500 lots were spread around the hall for inspection before bidding. These ranged from new, top-of-the-range personal computers to printer leads and boxes of floppy disks.

Computer auctions have become commonplace in the past few years. Yesterday's sale, organised by the London Computer Auction Rooms Limited, was believed to be the largest in the country. There are now at least 10 specialist computer auction companies operating in the United Kingdom. On the lower end of the scale, there are on-site auctions of bankrupt stock, usually arranged by liquidators.

At the Barbican, the bidding was professional and rapid. Some of the bidders were recognised by the auctioneers and were obviously regulars. With many duplicate lots of smaller items to be gone through, there was no time to waste. Software items, most of which come without manuals, bring the odd caustic comment. 'If you lot could overcome your aversion to legal software, you would realise what bargains you could get,' the auctioneer suggests. Laughter from the audience, but there are still not too many takers and the packages, such as Wordperfect and Lotus, move quickly and cheaply. For instance, three sets of Wordperfect for the Apple Macintosh computer (disks only) sell for pounds 10 each. This compares with the package's normal retail price of more than pounds 200.

There are certainly bargains to be had, particularly among the smaller items. But at an auction of this size the number of serious bidders means that the larger lots, such as the newer PCs and laser printers, generate a lot of interest and go for relatively high prices.

There are risks as well as bargains when buying secondhand. Some items include optional warranties, but this applies to neither the software nor the individual components. At smaller auctions, particularly of bankrupt stock, it is unlikely that any of the equipment will have this option. The buyer of secondhand computers generally has little or no protection if the goods are faulty.

Consumer protection laws still apply, but these are based on implied covenants covering the quality of the goods: it is implied that a new product will work, but unless specifically stated at the time of the sale of secondhand equipment, no such assumption can be made. 'It is not a legal problem, it is an evidential problem,' Trevor Cook, partner at solicitors Bird & Bird, says. 'Unless there is precise documentation from the seller, he or she will be able to find some excuse for getting out of the obligations.'

There is also no way of telling the history of equipment. A lot of stolen equipment undoubtedly ends up under the hammer. 'Everyone is aware of the problem,' the auctioneer, John Russell, says after the sale. But there have been only three known cases at the London Computer Auction Rooms in the three years it has been operating. 'That is a tiny proportion of the equipment we sell,' he says.

Mr Russell has been a computer auctioneer for 10 years, and says he has come across stolen equipment no more than eight times.

The London Computer Auction Rooms is a genuine auction, selling equipment only on behalf of third parties, such as liquidators and rental and finance companies. It also has co-operated with the police to try to recover stolen property, he says.

Nevertheless, only a tiny proportion of stolen computer equipment is recovered or can be identified, and the amount of such equipment at some auctions may be quite high.

Inevitably, software is also sold illegally. Strict copyright laws govern its resale, but if a PC's hard disk has not been wiped before sale, or if software has been loaded to increase the hardware's value, those laws will be infringed. This may become apparent only when the user turns to the original developer for support or an upgrade of software.

Other sources of secondhand computer equipment, such as specialist dealers, tend to concentrate on selling larger systems to business users and often act as brokers. However, the saving from buying secondhand has to be compared with the discounts now available on new equipment.

For all the drawbacks there is a buzz about an auction, and bargains are to be found. I am quite happy with my pounds 10 copy of Wordperfect.

(Photograph omitted)

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