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Working paper

An Optimal Distributionally Robust Auction

arxiv.org. Theoretical Economics. Cornell University, 2020
An indivisible object may be sold to one of n agents who know their valuations of the object. The seller would like to use a revenue-maximizing mechanism but her knowledge of the valuations' distribution is scarce: she knows only the means (which may be different) and an upper bound for valuations. Valuations may be correlated. Using a constructive approach based on duality, we prove that a mechanism that maximizes the worst-case expected revenue among all deterministic dominant-strategy incentive compatible, ex post individually rational mechanisms is such that the object should be awarded to the agent with the highest linear score provided it is nonnegative. Linear scores are bidder-specific linear functions of bids. The set of optimal mechanisms includes other mechanisms but all those have to be close to the optimal linear score auction in a certain sense. When means are high, all optimal mechanisms share the linearity property. Second-price auction without a reserve is an optimal mechanism when the number of symmetric bidders is sufficiently high.