An auctioneer would rather sell an item for £1,000 with the buyer fully aware of any issues, complete the sale quickly and earn their commission on the lower amount, than risk selling a faulty item for £5,000 that the buyer later complains about due to undocumented faults.
That's not to say that mistakes aren't made, but it is not a reason to dismiss buying at auction out of hand.
To reduce the risks, look for usage meter readings (e.g. camera operation hours), comments on condition and evidence in the photos that give you a good idea of how the item has been treated (though don't get bogged down in minor cosmetic issues). Look for things like flight cases that show an item has been transported carefully, photos that show a camera lens has no scratches, or that all the required accessories are included. If information is limited, don't be afraid to reach out to the auctioneer, and do check your auctioneer is a member of a reputable auctioneers association, this should also give you additional comfort that they are adhering to a code of practice.
The Real Risks - Do Your Research
Buying at auction is not the same as buying from a retailer. Issues most commonly arise when a first-time auction buyer is not aware of the nature of the auction process.
These are the three key aspects you should be aware of:
Buyer's Premium is the auctioneers fee which is added on to the 'hammer price' you pay for an item - so if the hammer falls at £1,000 and BP is 20%, the amount you will pay is £1,200 (in addition to sales taxes i.e. VAT or the local regional tax). Make sure you are aware of the BP (it should be obvious on the lot page) and ensure you only bid to your maximum amount having calculated what the total will be.
For most auctions you are responsible for delivery of the item you bought. Items may not be packaged for transport, so ensure you know whether they're in a flight case, a soft case or loose as they may require additional packaging. Read the terms of the auction carefully to see what the arrangements are for transport (including local COVID-19 restrictions), when the item needs to be removed from site and how it can be collected (e.g. can you collect it yourself?). Also consider where the item is located in the building - if you have bought a heavy item from a studio on the third floor of a building with no lift, you'll need to factor in the time and effort to move it!
While it is the case for some industries (e.g. construction), in the AV and Broadcast world you probably couldn't consider auctions as a method for procuring all of your equipment. Though companies close or dispose of their surplus all the time, there is no guarantee that the piece of equipment you are looking for will be available for when you need it. In addition, while quick payment should enable a rapid collection of your item, there are various reasons why there may be a delay to you getting hold of the item you have won. Having said that, it can be a good way to avoid long lead times on equipment with limited availability and get your hands on an item sooner than you otherwise would have done.
Pay Your Own Price
A great way of looking at an auction is that it gives you the opportunity to 'Pay Your Own Price' for an item. However, it is easy to get caught up in the process of winning an item on the day so make sure you set your price (allowing for any additional charges) and don't exceed it. My top insider tip here is to be aware that if there are multiples of the same item in a row the first lot will often sell for more than the rest, even if they are identical.