Buying stamps at public stamp auctions can be fun, and occasionally, very lucrative! Most larger cities have at least one major philatelic exhibition every year. Aside from the important philatelic exhibits and the large bourses, these exhibitions usually feature an auction by one of the major philatelic auction houses. Color catalogs, describing all the lots in the auction, are usually available at the exhibition, free of charge, for prospective bidders.
Mail bidders and online bidders also participate in these public stamp auctions, but they don't have the ability to see and examine the lots they are bidding on, as the "floor" bidders do.
The stamp auctions usually feature individual stamp lots, containing elusive, high catalog value philatelic gems, but these lots are not the focus of most of the serious bidders at the auction. Where the REAL bargains in an auction are, is in the collection and "box" lots! All of the auctions have a viewing area, where interested bidders can go and examine all of the lots, prior to the start of the auction. I have been to quite a few public auctions, over the years, and the majority of the people viewing lots are not looking at the individual stamp lots ... they are all feverishly pouring-over the collection and "box" lots.
These types of lots can provide many bargains for the bidders that have examined them carefully. Sometimes, you can pick up an entire collection, containing some of the scarce stamps you are missing, by buying a collection lot containing them, many times for much less than you would pay for the particular stamps individually. With the online auction sites, the duplication from a collection is very easy to scan, lot, and sell, if you wish to do that.
Box lots are not junk! They are usually made up of collection remainders, etc. that do not justify an individual or collection listing. Occasionally though, they may also contain an overlooked gem that was not detected, when the lot was initially put together. They can also contain expensive albums and stamp collecting supplies that could potentially save a collector many hundreds of dollars.
I went to the Harmer-Schau auction at the APS AmeriStamp Expo in Riverside, CA a while back. I was looking for some Western European collections for my store stock that wouldn't cost me a fortune. I wound up with a complete mint LH West Germany collection ($400.00), a mint NH Republic of Austria collection, from 1945 to date ($700.00), and a mint, mostly NH, Swiss Collection, from 1945 to date ($700.00). Almost all the stamps went into my store stock, but I also got a huge personal bonus out of it. The Austrian and Swiss collections each came in a two volume set of Lighthouse hingeless albums, in almost brand-new condition! The retail value of the two Lighthouse album sets is over $2,000.00! My personal Austria and Switzerland collections now reside in those albums!
There were a couple Russian box lots, containing old Minkus albums, full of stamps, that I was also looking at. I noticed that there were actually stamp dealers from the Russian Federation there looking at them, as well. There must have been something GOOD in those boxes, because they did sell to the visiting Russian dealers, and for hundreds of dollars over the estimated realization price noted in the auction catalog!
In the auction, there were also box lots of mounts, albums, stock books, etc., that if purchased at retail, would cost a fortune! I spoke to one couple that was there looking for box lots containing volumes of the Scott International Album series that they were missing. A full set of the Scott International series is about $15,000.00 now. This couple was very smart. By doing what they were doing, they were able to get a large portion of the Scott International album volumes, some even containing stamps, at a trivial cost.
When examining a box lot, do so thoroughly. There may be unseen gems hidden within glassine envelopes or in between the pages of albums or catalogs in the lot!
Also, if you are bidding on lots in stamp auctions, be careful to budget for the sales tax and the buyer's commissions that the auction house charges, as they can substantially increase your net cost, when paying for your winnings.
Even if you don't bid on any lots, attending an auction can be a lot of fun. Watching the audience, the bidding activity, and the incredible amount of money some of the bidders are paying for their lots, can be great entertainment in itself.
Find a public philatelic auction, and go HAVE SOME FUN!