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How to Buy and Sell at Auction

I attended my first auction at ten days old. In the thirty years that have since passed, a lot has changed. The advent of the internet has made buying and selling at auction easier than ever before. Despite this, many people are still hesitant to visit or take part in a classic ‘in the room’ auction.

Wessex Novice Night Auction Booklet Resized If you're lucky enough to have an auction who hosts a 'Novice Night', you should definitely attend. There's so much to learn!

Recently, I was lucky enough to attend an ingenious ‘Novice Night’ at Wessex Auction Rooms, hosted by the co-owner Tim Weeks (of Bargain Hunt fame). The turn out was fantastic, which made me realise that so many people still find auctions daunting. In this guide, I aim to explain the ins and outs of buying and selling at auction, as well as dispelling the myths surrounding this timeless sales platform.

I find auctions intimidating – I don’t know where to start.

The most common reason I’ve heard from those who have yet to experience the thrill of auctions is that they find them intimidating. So many people are concerned that they’ll ‘go mad’ and overspend, or accidentally buy something they didn’t want with an inadvertent hand gesture. Below I have answered some questions pertaining to auctions.

  • Can I trust the auctioneer?

Yes! The auctioneer primarily works for the vendor and will always prioritise those who have entrusted them with their goods. It is in the auctioneer’s best interests to maximise the prices realised by the lots; after all, they have bills to pay too! On the flip side, it would be very short-sighted for an auctioneer to drive up the prices, as the buyer would never come back.

  • Do valuers get everything right?

No! They are only human. Generally, auction houses will have a good all-round knowledge of antiques and collectible items but will always have a speciality subject. For example, Tim specialises in collectible toys and games, and their five annual specialist toy auctions are quite an event.

  • Do you have to be silent?

Not in my experience. Auctions are something of a sensory overload. You’ll have the bustle and chatter of the crowd, the flurry of the bidding process, and the bang of the gavel. Many people may know each other, so this creates quite a social atmosphere. While it is respectful not to be boisterous, you don’t have to treat it like a library.

  • Are auctions only for adults?

No. Most auctions will certainly allow well-behaved children and dogs. It is a great place to encourage children to take an interest in history and design. My siblings and I regularly attended auction houses as children, and I have fond memories of being immersed in the atmosphere created by the room. Where dogs are concerned, it is always worth checking with the venue first.

  • If I scratch my nose, will I spend thousands?

No. An auctioneer knows what is and what isn’t a bid. They’ve got a lot of experience! If they aren’t sure, they may ask you just to confirm. With their more frequent buyers, they’ll be used to their bidding mannerisms, no matter how strange.

How do I know who to go to?

If you were to do an online search for auction houses in your area, you may find quite a few.

Wessex Auction Rostrum and Sale Room Top: The rostrum where the auctioneer(s) will take a seat and commence the sale. Bottom: Just one part of a packed 800+ lot auction ready to take place.

How do you know who to choose? Nowadays, many places will have customer reviews available through Google or their own closed platform on their website. However, the best way to decide which place suits you is to get out there and visit them. Another way of whittling down your options is to decide on why you’re going. General browsing is great if you’re not looking for anything specific, but if your parameters are narrower, like you want a Lalique bowl, you may have to attend a 20th century arts auction. I’ll talk more about this later.

Buying at auction

The process of buying at auction has several stages. I have broken it down below, explaining the importance of each part.

  • Attending the preview.

It is important to try and get to the viewing day. That way, you’re able to carefully check over items you’re interested in. You never know – you might spot something else!

  • Keep your cool.

If you find something you like, or a real gem in a box of junk, don’t freak out. Drawing attention to yourself and therefore your desired pieces might become a costly mistake! My father used to be followed around auctions, and was aware that other bidders would watch what he was taking in interest in. One day, accompanied by a friend, they decided to play with these people. They found a box of utter rubbish - I mean, worthless. They jumped up and down, making excited noises, rummaging, and then proceeding to whisper and shove a random piece to the bottom of the box. Not only did a handful of people proceed to rifle through the box, but it made a ridiculous price at auction.

  • Make notes.

You may want to take pictures or jot down some notes about prospective purchases. This could include dimensions, design, contents, or damage. You can then use this information to help you research and decide on a price you’re prepared to pay. It is worth remembering that most auctions don’t PAT test electricals, and that this will be up to the buyer. You’ll want to factor that in to your price, as electricians don’t come cheaply.

  • The big day.

It’s the day of the auction – make sure you get there in a timely fashion! Not only will you want to get a prominent position in the room, but you can use the extra time to inspect your lots again. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for unscrupulous bidders to move lots around, or even to pinch things. Even if you don’t get a front row seat, the porters will be holding lots up for the crowd to view, as well as many items being shown on screens for bidders to see more clearly.

  • Don’t be afraid to register.

Bidding is not compulsory when attending an auction. It is always worth filling in a bidding form, just in case you fancy a punt. You can register for a single visit, or if you intend to attend on a regular basis, you may be able to have the bidding number permanently allocated.

  • Check when your lots are up.

Auctioneers will organise the lots into relevant sections. In the words of Tim Weeks, ‘…those interested in diecast are not interested in dolls.’ An average 800 lot auction can last around 10 hours; don’t worry, you’re not expected to stay in your seat the whole time! You can nip in and out if there are substantial gaps between your lots. Alternatively, if you’ve finished bidding, you can go to reception to settle the bill.

Have you worked out your maximum bid? Can you stick to it? As previously mentioned, there are several factors to consider when deciding on your maximum bid amount. Another is considering the auction fees – you don’t want to be surprised by the bill at the end. Auctioneers tend to bid up incrementally; don’t be afraid to jump in with your own bid if you want to. For example, if the bidding is at £25 and the next bid is £30, you could try £28 if you think your rival may not go any further! I will discuss types of bidding later on.

  • Settling up.

Congratulations – you’ve just bought something at auction! What do you do now? Well, head on over to the reception and give them your buyers number. The auctioneer will have jotted your number next to any lots you’ve purchased during the course of the auction. This is then fed back to reception who are then able to generate the bills. Check your invoice to make sure all of your lots are accounted for, and then pay. It’s worth remembering that while most credit and debit cards are accepted, as well as cash, most places won’t accept cheques. The payment will have to clear before the lots are collected.

You can’t just grab your lot and go. It would be chaos! Once you’ve visited reception and paid your bill, you take your receipt into the saleroom and hand it to a porter. They will get your items for you; this saves on any mix-ups. Once this is done and you’re happy with your purchases, both parties will sign the paperwork to confirm receipt of goods.

If you can’t collect on the day, then have a chat with the auction house about making alternative arrangements. The key here is communication; they are happy to be flexible if you discuss it with them first. However, due to their high-volume turn over, items should really be collected within a week from the sale date.

Another more recent development in many auction houses, fuelled by the use of online bidding via platforms such as The Saleroom, is the offer of worldwide shipping. The auction house wants to ensure there are no hurdles that would put potential bidders off, and distance can be a factor.

Selling at auction

Selling at auction differs to buying in several ways. I have detailed the points below.

  • What should I take?

It’s always advisable to get all items checked by an auction valuer. You never know what treasure they may uncover! ‘That’s what we do all day’, says Tim. They can turn your trash into (sometimes serious) cash. For example, one gentleman dropped in to the auction house on the way to the local rubbish dump. He had some old Scalextric that he’d cleared out of his house, and decided he’d just check that this really was rubbish that should be disposed of. It turned out they could fetch quite a good sum and ended up in a specialist toy auction.

  • Where should I sell?

Your auctioneer will discuss your options with you regarding how your items should be sold. You want to make sure they make the most of your items. If something will do better elsewhere, they ought to tell you. However, a good auctioneer will be able to work their magic with what you give them. In addition, they have the contacts to really promote your items effectively and will often have a list of specialist buyers they can alert to items of interest. All auctions will have specialist sales and it’s well-worth taking full advantage of these.

  • Reserve or no reserve?
    Wessex Auction Entry Form This is an example of what you can expect to see on an auction entry form. You'll see that the lots include a reserve price.

Your valuer will give you their professional opinion as to the potential price your objects could achieve at auction. They may even ask you if you’d like to put a reserve on it.

There are two types of reserve – ‘fixed’ and ‘discretionary’.

A ‘fixed’ reserve means that there is no flexibility. If an item is valued at £30-£50 and you put a reserve of £30 on it, it cannot be sold for under the reserve price.

A ‘discretionary’ reserve gives the auctioneer the leeway to accept a lower bid if it will ensure a sale. It is normally set at 10% less than the reserve price. For example, if your reserve is set at £30, the auctioneer will be able to accept a bid of £27.

Auctioneers generally feel that reserved items can be more difficult to sell; if the reserve is set quite high, then it may prove tricky to achieve. However, if you absolutely cannot bear to part with something under a certain price then you should consider a reserve.

  • Is there a good or bad time to sell?

Years ago, the summer holidays were officially an awful time to sell. Most people were spending their money on days at the beach and ice-cream, not furniture and bric-a-brac! However, the introduction of online platforms and smart phones has meant that the whole experience is portable. That, and the piqued interest in all things vintage, has encouraged more people to join in wherever they are. Nowadays, there’s no time to sell like the present.

  • What can I do to maximise my money?

An auctioneer will do their best with what you give them. The more background you have on something, the more chance it has of doing well. For example, if you take in a mechanical object, you should tell them whether or not it works. The same goes for battery-operated goods; they are not obliged to test every item and will have to sell it ‘as seen’. This gives no guarantees and will potentially stunt the bidding. If they know the mechanism is working, they could even make a video for the online bidders to see.

The same can be said for provenance. If you take them a table, it may be worth once price. If you take them a table and can prove it belonged to Charles Dickens, then that’s a whole different kettle of fish. Most people love a bit of history surrounding an object.

Types of bidding

There are four types of bidding available to a buyer – in the room, commission, telephone, and online.

  • In the room.
    Wessex Bidding Card and Commission Bidding Form Top: A classic example of a bidding card. Below: A commission bid form, including details of them items you're planning to bid on.

Truly the best way to bid (and enjoy the whole experience) is in person. You just register at reception and away you go. This is definitely the simplest and most reliable bidding method.

  • Commission bidding.

This allows the buyer to leave their maximum bid with the auctioneer so that they can act on their behalf. Some people may be concerned that they’ll be bid up to their maximum – a good auctioneer will no do this! If you leave a bid of £200 for a lot valued at £50-£80, the auctioneer will start at the lower estimate. They will continue the bidding as usual. Sometimes you may be lucky that you’ll get something for far less than you anticipated, and other times you may pay your top-end. You may even be outbid entirely.

  • Telephone bidding.

This is better for a more experienced auction-goer. To qualify for telephone bidding, you’ll need to fill in a telephone bidding form and ensure that you’re available during the auction. A member of the team will contact you just before your lot is up for sale and relay word-for-word what the auctioneer is saying. You can then give them your bid verbally, which they can pass on to the auctioneer.

  • Online bidding.

This is a great way to bid for your lots remotely. You can browse the catalogues online and view or participate in auctions occurring live across the country. Companies such as The Saleroom use live audio and video feed to allow bidders to see the auction in real time. One possible downfall to online bidding is the potential to lose connection if you’re out and about.

There are additional fees involved when bidding through an online third party. You will need to take these into consideration when working out your maximum bid.


Auction fees can seem quite daunting at first glance, but once you understand how they work and how to calculate them it’ll become second nature to your auction trading process. I have explained them below.

  • Buying fees.

Buyers are subject to a ‘buyer’s premium’, which is worked out in the following way:

Hammer price + 17% of hammer price + VAT.

Depending on the kind of auction you go to, there may be VAT on the hammer price too. However, at Wessex Auction Rooms, the VAT is included within the hammer price. In this case, the VAT is only payable on the auction’s 17% ‘service charge’.

So, if you buy something for £100 it would work out as follows:

Hammer price (£100) + 17% of hammer price (£17) + VAT on hammer price at 20% (£3.40)

This brings the total to £120.40. There are £20.40 of fees on a £100 purchase.

If you use an online bidding facility, they’ll charge around 3% on top plus VAT. It is worth checking what they charge beforehand. This will not go to the auction house but directly to the third party.

  • Selling fees.

When selling at auction, you are paying a ‘commission rate’ to the auction house. It works out as follows:

(15% of hammer price plus VAT) + (1% insurance plus VAT) + (£3 lotting fee plus VAT)

As this is a service that the auction house is providing, it is all subject to VAT. Therefore, if you sell something for £100 it works out like this:

£100 – [15% hammer price plus VAT = £18)] – [1% plus VAT (£1.20)] – [£3 lotting fee plus VAT (£3.60)] = £77.20.

This brings the total gained from a £100 sale to £77.20, where the commission rate totals £22.80.

It is worth noting that the rates vary from auction to auction, so this is a rough guide based on one venue.

What do they do for all these fees?

In my opinion, you’re getting a good deal when going through an auction. You’re paying for a wealth of expertise and services you can’t just download and use for yourself. The knowledge gained from years of experience to make that appraisal, the time and effort put in to photographing, researching, and cataloguing, listing the products online, and making the phone calls to their punters to stimulate interest. Not to mention all of the work that goes in on the actual sale day.

Are they secure?

Many people may be put off using an auction house because of security. What if an item is stolen? I mean, there are people around all of the time. I have compiled a list of points that should hopefully put your mind at ease.

  • Cameras

Nowadays, there are cameras all over the place; the cost of running them will be a part of that 1% insurance (+ VAT) you pay as a seller. These are a great deterrent and will allow the auction house to keep a vigilant eye on their saleroom.

  • Entry

The auction room is strictly off limits to the public until the preview and auction days.

  • Jewellery and small objects

On a viewing day, a good auction house will ensure that there is one porter available per person. If there are more people than porters, they will have to wait their turn. In addition, no small valuables are left out on display as they would be vulnerable to theft.

  • Damage

In the unfortunate event that your object is damaged while in the care of the auction house, they will offer you the guide price. Therefore, if an item is valued at £30-£50, they’ll give you £50. If you are unhappy with this then the matter will be escalated to the insurance company. It is worth remembering that insurers take the ‘market value’ of an object when assessing a claim; since the market value is dictated by achieved auction prices, you may not get any more than the initial settlement offer.

Hopefully this guide has helped to unravel the mysteries surrounding auction houses, and now you’re eager to get down to the next viewing or appraisal day!

A huge thanks to Tim Weeks and Martin Hughes at Wessex Auction Rooms for their input with this piece.

2 thoughts on “How to Buy and Sell at Auction”

  • Anthony Stephen

    A good article generally but with one thing I completely disagree with which has prompted me to write this comment. “Can I trust the auctioneer?” NO, MOST DEFEINITELY NOT! I can't comment on Wessex Auction Rooms as I've never visited them, but I have visited and bought from over 20 other auction houses over the last three years (I run an ebay store full time). Auction houses operate outside the scope of the Sales of Goods Act, are largely unregulated and in general are not to be trusted. Only through experience can one learn the few auction houses who can be trusted but your article as it stands would lead to costly mistakes for both buyers and sellers. Also do not think the auction houses with the minor celebrity auctioneers you see regularly on TV are more reputable.


    Most auction houses list their lots online and potential buyers can request a condition report prior to the auction. Do not trust these condition reports. Almost all auction houses make a disclaimer that condition reports are only an opinion and are not binding. How convenient. Always visit the auction house to view the items yourself. I once asked an auction house for a condition report on a group of 7 Royal Worcester figurines. The reply came back "All in good condition". Fairly non-specific, but it would be reasonable to expect them to be undamaged. I won the lot and found that 4 or the 7 figures were damaged in some way, including one who's arm had been broken off and repaired! Conversely I've had this work in my favour when I sold a box full of fair/poor condition diecast cars through an auction house which the auctioneer was kind enough to list in the auction catalogue as “Mint In Boxes”. Who was I to argue? It certainly bumped the selling price up for me.

    If you do go to view the auction then take a camera with you. If you're bidding on something that costs more than a few pounds, especially if it's something breakable or with multiple parts. Things get broken on viewing days, things get stolen out of boxes on viewing days, and there's nothing worse than having to argue that a lot you've bought isn't in the same condition as when you viewed it without photographic evidence to back you up. I've been there, and I've seen other people embroiled in the same argument with auction house staff. If you buy porcelain items also invest in an ultraviolet torch so you can see damage or repairs that may not be obvious to the naked eye.

    Never leave commission (absentee) bids with an auction house, especially if you're bidding well over the estimate for a lot. Get a friend or relative to bid for you or pay the extra percentage to bid online if you can't be there in person. There is probably about a 50/50 split with regards to which auction houses can be trusted with commission bids, but unless you're experienced then err on the side of caution. Say, for example, a lot has an auction estimate of £80 - £120 but you're willing to spend £300 on it. You leave a commission bid of £300 with the auction house. The theory is that they're supposed to execute your bid at the lowest possible price to win the lot. But they have a conflict of interests – they want to get the most money for their vendor too, and the more money they get for their vendor the more commission they get for themselves – and they know someone who's willing to pay £300 for the lot so miraculously the bidding has to start at £300. Sometimes they'll be more subtle about it and maybe start at a price £20-£30 lower than your maximum but the truth is you might have won it for within the estimate had you not tipped off the auctioneer about how much you'd pay for it. It's almost like showing your opponents your hand when you're playing poker for hundreds or even thousands of pounds. You see it all the time, and once you know the auction houses who do it it's pretty obvious. I've even been told on the quiet by two different members of staff on different days at one particular auction house that it isn't advisable to leave commission bids with them. (Getting to know the staff can be a big help).

    If you do win items, then check them thoroughly when you go to collect them. Once you've walked out of the door with them there will be absolutely no comeback. If the auction house has re-boxed items which were on display for the auction then open them back up and check them before you leave. I learned this the hard way when I discovered after collecting that an item which had been repacked by the auction house into a foam lined box was broken despite being perfect on viewing day. Apparently I should have opened up each of over 100 items I'd bought at the auction and checked them before leaving so the auctioneer would hear no complaint. Now I do just that, even if it takes me a couple of hours and ties up one of the porters at the auction house.


    Unless you're selling an item which is known to be worth thousands of pounds, don't assume that the auctioneer wants to get the best price for your item. Don't assume that they're going to research your item thoroughly and give it an accurate description. Don't assume they're going to get the estimated price right. Don't assume they'll take photographs which show it off at its best to maximise the sale price. Don't assume they're going to give your items white glove treatment when the reality it they might be piled together in a box and shoved under a table. The reason for this isn't malice or laziness on the auctioneer's part, it's a question of numbers. The larger auction houses who only have a sale once a month can have 3000 – 4000 lots in their monthly sale. They're more interesting in getting them out of their doors with a sale to give them some commission and the final price is less important. Plus a lot of the auction house staff who do the cataloguing and photography are poorly paid, overworked and fairly disinterested in your lot. The reason I won't name and shame any auction house is that knowing the ones which are worst for this gives me a huge advantage at auction as it is poorly described, poorly photographed lots which give me my biggest profit. For example, I visited an auction house to view some Swarovski crystals they had in their auction catalogue. One lot was described as being “A collection of Swarvroski (sic) crystal figures including animals plus two books.”. The photograph showed three crystal figures, one with a box, and two books. The lot had an estimate of £80-£120 which was about right for the three figures shown in the photograph. The two books were worthless and didn't even warrant inclusion. What I discovered when I visited the auction house on viewing day was that the description and photograph was only a sample of the lot and there were actually 8 Swarovski figures, all boxed with certificates including limited edition annual figures. I won them for the lower estimate of £80 (nobody else bid) and sold them for over £1000 within a few weeks. Fantastic for me but if I was the vendor I would have been absolutely furious. Chances are they came from a deceased estate and nobody knew, cared or had the time to spend finding out how much they were worth.

    My point is do your research before taking items to an auction house and DO NOT put your trust in the auctioneer. Tell them what the estimate should be and how they should be described. Look at the description and photographs after they catalogue your item and if you're unhappy tell them so. If you don't get a satisfactory answer or amendment then withdraw your lot from the auction.

    • Rebecca Preston

      Dear Anthony,

      Thank you for taking the time to reply to my article and for your detailed comments.

      Naturally you and I can only speak from experience; it sounds like you've enjoyed both the highs and lows of auctions! I too have been to some iffy places a long time ago, and I completely agree that you must do your research. I did mention at the start that it is worth doing an online search of auctions in your area and visiting them to get a feel for the place. There is also the option of online reviews, although as we all know they can be skewed by either very satisfied customers or very irritated ones, and few inbetween.

      I agree entirely that 'minor celebrities' do not automatically make an auction better. I worked in conjunction with Wessex Auction Rooms as someone who has bought and sold there, and has seen it grow since it was taken over a couple of years ago. It is possible that the 'celebrity' aspect of some auctions may mean that the spotlight is on them a little more, and perhaps gives them less room for errors. This can only be a good thing for the vendor, but perhaps not for a keen-eyed buyer such as yourself! As I say, I can only speak from experience. All I know is, these guys and their team work very hard for their customers, which has really put them on the map.

      Regarding condition reports in auctions, I believe that is, as they say, a matter of opinion. Unfortunately it is true that the onus is on the buyer when it comes to checking the condition. What you consider to be acceptable wear on something could be entirely different to me. However, saying stuff is perfect to then discover it's broken and been repaired, well, that's infuriating! You're absolutely right about taking a camera; I believe I mentioned about making notes and taking pictures. I have experienced first hand how items can be broken or stolen from a lot. It's a nightmare. The ultraviolet light is an excellent recommendation to those thinking about buying porcelain; thank you!

      Commission bidding is a tricky one. While I can totally understand your concerns about the auction house potentially bidding it up to maximise their takings, they can't all be tarred with the same brush. I've bought plenty of items in the past having left commission bids that were far higher than the realised price; perhaps I was just lucky? I think many old-school auction houses have done this in the past, but with the use of online platforms the bidding is not solely in the room or on the phone any more. Lots of items are bid up now organically because of the sheer volume of people participating remotely. Of course, this is not always the case. I think that if people are looking to participate in auctions, be it buying or selling, it is worth trying to build a rapport with the auction staff. If they're cold and unhelpful then it is probably not worth doing business with them.

      Collecting items - well, absolutely that is on the buyer to check. It doesn't matter if it's 1 or 100 items, if you've bought it then you need to check that you're happy before you leave. That's the case with most purchases. Of course, you don't have a returns policy with an auction! That's why it's imperative that you go through everything before you take it away. I'm sorry to hear that you've experienced such negativity from auctions regarding your newly-purchased property; I can assure you you're not alone. My father and I bought a beautiful Art Deco drinks cabinet with the full original set of Richardson glasses inside years ago from an old auction outside Salisbury. The porters, out of sheer badness, packed all the glass inside and then jammed the lock. It's been sat for 15 years in my unit because I can't bring myself to try and break it open. Of course not all auction houses are great, but if I focus on the negative I've experienced, albeit a minor number of times in decades, then no-one would ever want to attend.

      Selling-wise, of course the auctioneers don't always get it right. As I mentioned, the valuers are only human. We all miss things. I've missed some cracking gems in past, despite a wealth of experience. Nowadays we are more au fait with the poor selling techniques and descriptions used on stores like eBay or Etsy, which means that many people are not taking all they're told for granted. The internet does allow people to do their own research, and, if they're not happy with what the auction has told them, are free to try somewhere else. The 'estimate' is exactly that. Naturally, they don't want to put a really high estimate on some items. It's psychological. If they put a high estimate on something, even if they are confident that it will do well, if it does not achieve it then the customer will be wholly disappointed. On the flip side, a high estimate may put buyers off even trying. It creates something of a stalemate. You frequently see the big auction houses (Sotheby's, Christies) stating that a painting has achieved 3 or 4 times the estimate; this isn't because they don't know what they're doing. It is sometimes hard to know what something may achieve, or perhaps they're doing it to get more people interested. You only need the right two people who want something badly and even a piece of tat can soar.

      Your Swarovski story is not uncommon. It certainly sounds like some of the auctions you've attended are not working in favour of their clients. However, perhaps the vendor was happy with that price? Many people who are clearing estates are not concerned with value. It's a better option than getting in someone from a house clearance company who they will actually have to pay to take it away. Plus, it sounds you've enjoyed the fruits of their mistakes!

      I am grateful that you've taken the time to reply, and I have posted your comment so that people can get another side to this very varied industry. I wholeheartedly agree that the key in these situations is to research who you're doing business with. However, this piece was intended to encourage more people to get out there and experience it for themselves. I know lots of people who are intimidated by the whole situation and of course horror stories such as those you've mentioned are more commonly seen than any positive, although I don't know if they make up the majority of experiences. I personally believe that with more technology involved and, in some cases, some new blood in the industry, that many of the dodgy aspects to buying and selling at auction will fade altogether.

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