The US Marshals Service opened its online auction today for more than 30,000 bitcoins seized from the servers of the nefarious internet marketplace Silk Road during the 2013 raid on the network.
With the auction block open, multiple bundles of the currency worth approximately $17.4 million will be up for grabs in an event that could affect public bitcoin market values. Bidding will take place between 6AM and 6PM on Friday, and winners will be announced by June 30.
The e-wallet of currency being auctioned off accounts for about 20 percent of the total amount confiscated during the bust. The remaining 144,342 bitcoins not available for bidding are being held by the FBI in a separate e-wallet that came from Silk Road’s jailed owner Ross William Ulbrecht, more commonly known by his online alter-ego "Dread Pirate Roberts."
Silk Road was an underground online marketplace known for transactions related to illicit drug and criminal activity. The FBI shut down the network in October of 2013, arresting Ulbrecht in the process on charges of narcotics conspiracy, running a criminal enterprise, conspiracy to commit computer hacking, and money laundering.
If the auction preparation process is any indication of the Marshals Service's abilities to navigate the bitcoin market and technology in general, we may be in trouble.
On June 18, the Marshals Service sent an email out to potential bitcoin bidders. But in a slick move, the Marshals Service unintentionally cc’d all of them on the same email and thus 40 potential bidders were suddenly made aware of who they would be up against in the auction. The people on the list then began communicating with each other and openly discussing the upcoming sale.
“The leak has definitely changed the dynamics,” Charles Allen, the chief executive of the Bitcoin Shop, and who was on the email, told the New York Times. He said the error also created unease among those involved.
Some of the groups expected to bid on Friday hail from the financial sectors on both coasts, including San Francisco-based hedge fund Pantera Capital Management and the New York brokerage firm SecondMarket.
“Those interested in bidding are the same close-knit group of buyers. They are inherently bullish on an unproven e-currency and technology,” Mark T. Williams, a finance professor at Boston University, said of the potential participants.
According to Williams, only a few buyers control a majority of the bitcoin market, thus the cryptocurrency is not a deeply traded or liquid commodity. He said the auction process will make this glaringly obvious.
“It is simply a speculative bet not entered by new buyers, but by the same market promoters,” Williams said.
Much of the debate surrounding the auction has focused on whether it will affect bitcoin values in the public marketplace. On Wednesday, Citibank’s bitcoin analyst Steven Englander said in a letter that the auction would likely affect the cryptocurrency’s prices due to the fact that it will account for about 40 percent of the average daily bitcoin transactions.
“Pumping such a large quantity into the market should weigh on prices. The terms of the auction make it difficult for small bidders ($200,000 deposit, each of the nine blocks valued around $1.8 million), so the downward pressure is probably exacerbated by the limited number of investors interested in and capable of bidding,” he wrote.
Williams agreed that this type of large, single-seller bitcoin dump has the potential to affect values. He also said that the auction is a clear indicator that the government wants to get the currency off its hands before market prices drop. Williams expects the results of the auction will show the “smoke and mirrors” tactics of the public bitcoin market.
“The settled auction price will be very revealing of how thinly traded and the lack of true price transparency,” he said. “I doubt the winning bids will be even close to the official price posted by public exchanges.”
Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB
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