You’re Buying It, You Better Make Sure It’s What You Want’

If that ‘treasure’ you acquire at one of Uncle Sam’s auctions turns out to be a pig in a poke, you’ll have only yourself to blame

Take veteran buyer Burt Friedman, for example. For 20 years he's been stuck with two truck trailers full of inflatable wig stands, "Stand-O-Matic The wig stand that goes where you go!" He hoped to corner the market when he bought them, but he's taken a bath. And Amram Weinstock. He's usually a savvy bidder, but he accidentally bought about six million pairs of Japanese chopsticks; the market Weinstock knows is Chinese. "He thought he was going to flip it, boom, and make a home run," a rival said, with a predatory chuckle. "Now his meter's ticking and he has to put a lot of money into trucking and storage." Greg Carrino has to be especially careful to know the details of the market for the merchandise he deals in large propane tanks, helicopter cables, cellular phone equipment and the like.

Such are the bidders at regular auctions of goods that have been confiscated or otherwise accumulated by the Customs Service and other agencies of the U.S. Treasury Department; each year the department conducts 600 of these sales at centers across the country. But the government gives no guarantees. "Everything you're buying is as is, where is," explains an auction manager. High-stakes shopping you might buy rare books for $1,000 and quickly sell them for $14,000; or you might end up with a smelly, lifetime supply of dried fish flakes from Korea. The buyers who keep coming back clearly enjoy the auctions as a big game. Says one: "I'm a gambler. I love the surprises."

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