Markets in everything, family auction edition

David Altshuler recently bid at auction for a vintage necktie.

The event wasn’t set up by an auction house or to
benefit a charity. Instead, he was bidding against his two siblings in
a private, Web-based auction that they held to divvy up their late
father’s personal property.

Distributing a family’s tangible belongings — often
mundane knickknacks with far more sentimental value than monetary worth
— has long had the potential to ignite family feuds.  Divorce and
second marriages can add to the tension, as children and stepfamilies
vie for valued objects.

Now, families and estate planners increasingly are
turning to a number of novel strategies, including family auctions and
a round-robin selection strategy, to divide tangible property without
splitting families apart.  Recent online tools also can help family
members divide up a parent’s belongings.

Here is the (gated) article (WSJ).  For the pointer, thanks to both Don Boudreaux and a Sr. McKethan.


In a hilarious scene from Cryptonomicon, the mathematically-inclined Waterhouse family divides up family heirlooms. The clan devises a scheme by which members create a graph of sorts, with the origin at (0,0) representing no value, while each family member can adjust the value an item according to sentimental value along one axis and monetary value on the other.

In the end, I don't think the result would be dissimilar from what's described here.

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You've got it generally right, but it's worse than you remember. The family has a destested aunt-in-law who likes to hurt people. The men of the family explicitly come up with this highly mathematical approach because in the Waterhouse family the men do math and the women do obscure linquistics -- and this aunt's husband is not around.

Unfortunately, (1) our protagonist inadvertently reveals to the hated Aunt what he wants and (2) the hated Aunt intuits the perfect mathematical move to screw our protagonist

Happily our hero realizes that the optimization problem is not well specified, so he screws with the algorithm code to get the results he wants, anyway.

Lesson: you don't want the Cryptonomicon solution *unless* you're the one writing the code.

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Random interesting semi-related fact.

Family auctions have been common in the Plain world for a long time.

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