I admit that I'm a "genuine idiot" who has never been to a real auction and doesn't know all the conventions. In North by Northwest, Thornhill/Kaplan tries to disrupt an auction in different ways. I understand most of his deliberate mistakes, like bidding down instead of up. However, I don't understand why everyone is outraged when he bids $2000 (video below). What's wrong with this? It's more than the previous bid ($1200) and the increase ($800) seems reasonable for an antique.

I think that if I went to an online auction site like eBay and tried to bid $2000 when the previous bid was $1200, nothing would stop me (though it has been years since I last used that site).

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    Auction bidding works in a set formula for increases generally. - See support.bidspotter.com/hc/en-gb/articles/…
    – Paulie_D
    Sep 11, 2021 at 20:09
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    A 60% increase will of course stand out: that person is choosing to spend a significant higher amount of money than necessary. (Also, people don't bid on eBay like that: you set a maximum and then eBay will start a bidding war between the highest bids in predetermined increases until one bid is just about the second-highest bid.)
    – BCdotWEB
    Sep 11, 2021 at 20:34
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    NB If you did that on e-bay your visible bid would become $1202 or whatever the minimum increment is. It doesn't show as $2000, although the next bidder will have to overbid your $2K to become the top bidder: below that, his bid price will become your bid.
    – user207421
    Sep 13, 2021 at 6:32
  • Imagine selling your car for $5,000 and someone says "I'll give you $7,500!"
    – MonkeyZeus
    Sep 13, 2021 at 20:32

3 Answers 3


More important than outrageous, it wasn't believed to be genuine

The Auction House and Auctioneer are tasked with selling an item on behalf of the owner, getting the best value they can and taking a fee in the process.

As you say, Thornhill has been deliberately disrupting the proceeding, out there in the open where he cannot be kidnapped or killed, hoping that the police are called.

He's called into question whether the item is genuine, bid strange amounts, underbid $13 instead of $1,300, outbid himself. None of this is the normal behavior at an auction.

Your question is, why does the auction house ignore his $2,000 bid? Well from the auction house perspective, is the bid genuine? Will Thornhill, who has called into question whether the item is fake, be able or willing to pay up? Will the owner or other bidders be annoyed or even threaten to sue if "normal" bids are overlooked because of bids from a disruptive, possible madman in the room.

They elect to ignore Thornhill and call the police to get him out of the auction as soon as possible. They don't believe the $2,000 and subsequent bids of $2,100, $2,500 and $3,000 from him are genuine. After all he said a minute or so before hand that $13 was more than it was worth.

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    Yep, context of the whole exchange is important here, not just the individual or specific bids themselves. Sep 14, 2021 at 19:15

eBay bidding does not work the same way as bidding in the auction.

In an in-person auction, the auctioneer will usually pick some initial price. If a bid is placed, the auctioneer will then increment the price by some amount, and ask if someone is willing to pay that much. This repeats until no one is willing to bid a higher amount, and the auctioneer declares the item sold.

The protocol works this way because buyers don't want to pay more than necessary. Perhaps the buyer that values the item highest values it at $2000, but the buyer that values it second highest values it at $1200. If you were the one that values the item highest, would you rather pay $1300 or $2000? It is irrational to disclose you'd be willing to pay $2000 when you only need to pay more than $1200 to win the auction.

eBay doesn't quite work like this, because when you enter a "bid" you aren't agreeing to pay that much, you are agreeing to pay up to that much. eBay uses a system they call automatic bidding. They reference "setting up" automatic bidding, but as far as I know all eBay bids work this way, and always have, with no action required to "set it up". If you bid $2000 and the next best bid is $1200, you pay $1225, not the full $2000. eBay can work like this because you can enter your bid in a form without shouting it to the entire room where all the other potential buyers, and also quite likely the seller, will hear.

  • 1
    Ebay didn't always use automatic bidding. Very early on, it used classic manual bidding. Automatic bidding was introduced to solve the problem of "bid sniping", where someone (or, more often, someone's automatic bidding software) would place a bid just before the auction ended to try to get the item at a lower price. Not a problem with an in-person auction, because the auctioneer will keep the auction going as long as bids are coming in.
    – Mark
    Sep 13, 2021 at 21:21
  • Automatic bidding is generally set up from the sellers POV. They set up minimum bid increments. I've seen them anywhere from $1.50 to $10, and more. This way if the current bid is $10 and someone bids $20, the new max bid could be any value. For instance, it could be $12, if the bid increment is $1 and the max previous bid is $11, or it could be $21 if the other person's max bid was $30. I've seen where the current bid is $20, in this instance, since the previous max bid was also $20 and the new bid hasn't met the bid increment so the previous highest bidder still keeps their spot. Sep 14, 2021 at 19:27
  • What eBay does is known in the literature as a Vickrey auction, whereas the auction depicted in North by Northwest is called an English auction. Under certain (relatively straightforward) mathematical assumptions, the two types of auction are theoretically equivalent (i.e. both auctions should have the same ultimate outcome), but they obviously use very different bidding processes.
    – Kevin
    Sep 15, 2021 at 1:56

It’s not that it was unreasonable, just given his past behavior it was questionable —- and upon asking for the clarification, he increases his bid again and again. Raising the bid by a large amount is something that happens in auctions, it is a way to signal to others that they shouldn’t waste time by bidding against you, you are determined to get it and can afford it. But upon being questioned he raises his bid again and then yet again. At that point they decide that he simply isn’t being serious.

Because raising the bid again and again without a counter bid is NOT how an auction works.

Which is a long way of saying that it wasn’t the 2k bid that ultimately was the problem, it was his reaction to being questioned about it that was unreasonable.

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