Going Once

If you've never been to an auction before, the Boca Auction Gallery in Boca Raton is a great place to go on a Saturday night. It's fun, and it's free -- unless you buy something, of course. Even if you walk out empty-handed, you'll have to marvel at auctioneer/owner Mike Cobosco's breathtaking item-a-minute pace.

Many of the items sell for less than $100, especially early on, when caution rules the roost and would-be buyers have not yet been caught up in a foaming-at-the-mouth bidding frenzy, and at the end of the auction, when the seasoned veterans of the bidding wars have gotten a little gun-shy. At a recent auction, an antique Danish lamp went for $75, six cane-back chairs for $60, and a sectional sofa for $50. A 1994 Woodstock Pepsi can went for $5 to its first -- and only -- bidder.

"Sell it on eBay," Cobosco counseled the high bidder. "You'll make a fortune." Consider the bidder who bought a ukulele for $200 a couple of months ago and sold it online the following week for $3050. Cobosco had thought the instrument in question was a banjo and at the time believed the bidder paid $150 too much.

This country auction usually offers with no pretension more than 600 items without serious pedigree (or as they say at Sotheby's, "provenance" -- a proof of authenticity or past ownership). One recent Saturday Cobosco did mention that a Carl Fisher piano and stool came from the home of a part-time opera singer but then added, "Oh, you don't care."

Despite his rapid-fire delivery, Cobosco still makes time to engage his audience of about 200 people. The piano and stool, the 141st item on the block, went for $850 amid a round of applause; up to that point the highest bid was $400 for a very decent dining room table with two leaves, six chairs, and a china cabinet. When shopping for new furniture, it's hard to find six chairs alone for $400. But the pièce de résistance was still to come: a dining table with three leaves, custom table pads, six ball-and-claw chairs, and a china hutch Cobosco insisted would cost in the $50,000 range brand-new. And in fact it practically was. The auctioneer said the set had been purchased by its former owner in 1995. It went for $12,000, making it the most expensive item ever sold at the Boca Auction Gallery.

Talk about a win-win situation. The high bidders were thrilled. Cobosco was thrilled, too. "I would have been happy with a high bid of $8000," he confessed.