Coxsackie Antique Center

Where Yesterday Meets Tomorrow


Tips, Tricks, and Traps

It's on everybody's lips. eBay, the on-line auction service, has taken the antiques world by storm. It's fun, it's simple, it's an incredible piece of computer programming!... And it can be very dangerous! (But we love it!) What's it all about?

eBay is an internet web site. The company is physically located in San Francisco. It has set up a group of computers that are wired into the internet. The company has written auction software that allows it to auction millions of items simultaneously. Today, right now, there are over 970,000 items being sold on eBay, and the number is climbing steadily!

Anyone can list an item on the eBay computer. (You have to register first. It's free and takes about two days to process.) The seller writes the description, sets the minimum amount they're willing to sell the item for, and decides the category under which the item is to be listed.

Anyone can go onto the system and look at the items that are being offered for sale. If you find something you like, you send a bid to eBay. (again, you have to register first.) You indicate the maximum amount you're willing to pay. The eBay computer keeps track of the opening bid amount, the bids of any other people interested, and your maximum amount. It will increase your bid by small increments up to the amount necessary to exceed the next highest bid. As other bids come in, it will continue to bid for you, raising your bid each time to one increment above the 2nd bidder until your maximum amount is exceeded.

For example, widget is being offered with an opening bid of $5.00. You're willing to pay as much as $10.00 for the widget so you bid that amount. Your bid is recorded as $5.00, the opening amount. Along comes another fellow willing to pay $6.50 for the item. He bids, causing the computer to note his bid and then look at your maximum. Since your maximum is higher than the other guys maximum, the computer raises your bid to $7.00 to override the other fellows bid. Now, along comes another fellow willing to pay $12.00 for the item. The computer notes his $12 and your maximum of $10.00. It will raise your bid to $10 and then bid the other fellow at $10.50. You then get an e-mail note saying you've been outbid and the new fellow gets a note saying he's current high bidder at $10.50.

It's very important to remember that you are not buying from eBay. eBay is simply creating a venue for individuals to buy and sell. They operate the sales floor but do not provide the merchandise. If the deal goes bad, you can't get your money back from eBay. You have to deal directly with the seller. If the seller takes your money and doesn't provide the item, your recourse is to the local law enforcement agencies and the POSTAL MAIL FRAUD OFFICE. Those are pretty potent allies if they choose to get involved, but it may be difficult to get them to seriously pursue a complaint the "Froggie413" took $21.00 from you but never sent your box of used blue jeans. And if Froggie413 claims he sent it and the post office lost it, who's to say? That having been said, let's say that 700,000 items are sold every week through eBAy and no more than a handful go bad. 99% of the sellers on eBay bend over backward to keep you happy. (They want their positive feedback fix! More on that later.)

So what's so dangerous?

Well, basically, this is an auction. All the dangers of a regular auction exist, magnified ten-fold. But it dosn't seem like an auction - it seems like a video game! Computer people like to talk about "virtual reality." That's a mental state that you fall into when your attention is intensely focused on the computer. Video gamers find themselves mentally in the Middle Ages fighting Dragons, or in the cockpit of an F-16 engaged in aerial combat with a deadly Mig 27. The game becomes more real than the chair and the room you're sitting in. The same thing happens when you read a good book. You become so engrossed in the story that the room you're sitting in receedes into sub-consciousness and you LIVE the story.

So here you are, immersed in eBay, bidding on items you can't even see - you only imagine that you know what they are.

And you win the game by typing in a higher bid than the other guy. It's virtual reality and you are playing with a virtual wallet. But come morning, you've got to write out a check for the item using your actual checkbook.

That's not to say you shouldn't play on eBay. But be careful. Sit in a straight back chair without a cushion. Pinch yourself every few minutes. Keep your feet grounding in actual reality.

So how can you stay out of trouble?

  • First, remember the auction-goers prime directive. PREVIEW! PREVIEW! PREVIEW! Sit down and think about it, then PREVIEW AGAIN! How do you preview on a computer screen? There are ways. You look carefully at the picture, you read between the lines of the description, and you e-mail the seller with questions. But basically, you are trusting the seller to be accurate in their description and their image.

  • Second, 99% of the sellers are totally honest but many of them are also totally clueless about what they are selling. You have to rely on their knowlege of what they're selling when you are reading their description.

    We saw a "mission oak round table" offered on eBay. It had already been bid up to $500 with time still left in the auction. We looked at the picture. It was a 1930s maple veneered plant stand! There will be a lot of unhappiness in that transaction. The sellers were probably not trying to cheat someone - they included a picture. They just didn't know what they had. And the bidder obviously didn't know what they were bidding on. Others who saw that transaction will be running around saying "They get incredible prices on eBay" not realizing that the transaction will probably fall through after months of squabbling and lots of lost postage costs.

    We bought a childrens book on eBay. We e-mailed the seller asking if it was a first edition. He said it had a 1942 copyright. That was the right year, so we took his answer to be a yes and bid on it. He didn't bother to tell us that it said 27th printing right under the copyright line. Ouch!

    eBay is also a major outlet for fakes and counterfeits. You can't pick up the piece, turn it over, stroke it, and study it's patina. It looks good in the picture. The seller says or implies that it's authentic. Last year counterfeit Kugels were being bought at Castle for $12.95 a dozen and re-sold on eBay for $100 each! Counterfeit scientific instruments flooded the eBay auctions last summer.

  • Third, avoid the "closing within three hours" listings. There isn't time to reflect and there isn't time to ask questions and get back answers. Instead, search by topic or look at the new listings in a category. That leaves time to read the description very carefully, to ask questions, and to decide how much you want to pay.

    We bought a 10 volume set of novels. They were described as being in excellent condition. They arrived without dust jackets! We went back and re-read the description. It was very terse - it just said the series title and excellent condition. We had jumped to a hasty conclusion. OUCH!

  • Fourth, ASK QUESTIONS! If the seller omitted something from the description, do NOT assume that they just forgot to mention it. If they don't tell you, assume it's because they don't want you to know. If they don't mention their return policy, e-mail them and ask. If the don't tell you the postage cost, e-mail and ask. Don't assume a reasonable fee for postage. Ask them before you bid. If they use some abbreviation like "buyer pays s/h/i" e-mail them and ask them how much they charge for handling. Then factor that into your bid price. Avoid people with long legalistic terms of sale, or weasel worded answers to your questions. They've got an attitude problem and dealing with them will lead to trouble. Why are they hedging? Are they assuming you'll be dissatisfied and want to return it? Why are they assuming that?

  • Fifth, don't wait to the last minute to bid, and don't sit there and watch the auction ending. Decide in advance how much you're willing to pay, put that bid in, trust the computer to bid for you, and go on to something else. The temptation to raise your bid at the end can cost you a lot of money you didn't intend to spend.

    Check out, but don't rely too heavily on the "feedback" numbers. Buyers and sellers can post "positive feedback" or "negative feedback" on other users. Those numbers are subject to easy manipulation. There is reluctance to post negative feedback because of fear that the other party may retaliate with "feedback bombing" - getting all his buddies to post fraudulent feedbacks against your rating. The feedback system is the weakest link in the eBay system.

  • Sixth, the classic auction psychology takes hold. You find yourself bidding against people who have no idea of the commercial value of an item. They just WANT IT! And money is no object (because they're not playing with money - it's only virtual money!) So you can easily get carried away and overpay if you WANT IT too. Just as with most "in the flesh" auctions, you could often come to the Antique Center and buy the same item for less and have a chance to examine it carefully.

    From the sellers perspective, there are other problems.

    Getting the computer equipment, digital camera or scanner, the phone lines, etc. that are required is expensive. And all of that stuff is complicated! (Curse you, Microsoft!) You've got to sell a lot of stuff at a substantially greater profit than you could have gotten in an Antique Center just to pay for the initial investment.

    Preparing your listings and digital photos and transferring them to eBay is very tedious and time consuming. Dealing with the customer in Hawaii or Paris or Buenos Aires is slow and difficult. (Foreign payments can be a real nightmare. The easiest way is to do it by charge card but that's another $600 or $1,000 in cost.) Waiting for checks to clear, packaging the item, mailing it out, tracking it down when it gets lost, maybe having to argue about taking it back because the customer thought it was something else or your description omitted some important (or trivial) detail, etc. etc etc. All make it a tough way to make some money.

    Still, eBay is fun - for buyers and sellers. You can find some great stuff. You can sometimes get a bargain. Check it out at and have fun (Then come on over to Coxsackie Antique Center where you can touch the merch and have a lot more fun.)

    © 1997-2002 Coxsackie Antique Center

    Last Modified: