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U.S. government gets into the Net auctions game

The General Service Administration, which sells surplus government property, launches an online auction site, offering everything from a front-end loader to a dental chair.

Uncle Sam is going into the online auction business.

The General Service Administration, which sells surplus government property and seized items, launched an online auction site Wednesday. The site, which lists about 500 auctions, is offering everything from a dental chair to a front-end loader.

The GSA has sold surplus property for decades, but hopes the site will tap into a much wider audience than what it gets from its local auctions, said Don Heffernan, deputy chief information officer of the GSA's federal supply service.

"We're stepping into it slowly; we're not putting everything we have up for sale," Heffernan said. "Hopefully the vast majority will work well on the Web."

In August, the state of Michigan launched a site to auction off state surplus and confiscated items, becoming one of the first governments to start an online auction site. The site, dubbed "MiBid," has offered items such as tickets for a 1975 Elvis concert and road signs for Tiger Stadium, the ballpark in which the Detroit Tigers stopped playing baseball in September 1999.

The GSA's Web site will compete for attention and bids with online auction leaders such as eBay, Yahoo and Last March, for instance, San Jose, Calif.-based eBay set up a business-to-business exchange that features much of the same type of construction and office and computing equipment that the GSA is offering on its auction site.

The GSA chose to create its own Web site instead of teaming with eBay or another auction site, because it wanted to maintain the site's identity as a government owned and operated site, Heffernan said.

Also, the GSA auction site is tied into the agency's legacy computer systems that keep track of surplus government property. The GSA was concerned about making its legacy systems work well with an outside auction site, he said.

The GSA is using e-commerce software maker Ariba's Market Suite auction management software that the GSA has customized to interface with its legacy systems, Heffernan said. The auction Web site is running on Sun Unix servers hosted by an outside company.

Successful bidders will have to contact GSA representatives to arrange payment offline via checks or credit cards, Heffernan said. And in many cases, bidders will also have to arrange for pickup or shipping of items.

"Unlike eBay, we have a lot of stuff that isn't small," Heffernan said.