My name is Kate, and I am desperately addicted to bidding for antiques on eBayby Kate Jennings / February 20, 2004 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2004 issue of Prospect Magazine
Three years ago I managed to give up smoking for 28 days. Nature abhors a vacuum, and so do addictions. About a week into my smoking hiatus, on a Saturday morning, my thoughts turned to chiming clocks. Mantel clocks. I’ve always liked them. My grandparents had one, and it was a comfort to me as a child, warding off loneliness and my conviction that snakes were wriggling their way into their little farmhouse through the laundry drainpipe. I loved the low chimes, the steady tick-tock. As New York antique stores are beyond my budget, I decided to check out eBay, on the off-chance that I might find a Mantel clock there. I didn’t expect to find anything, because I thought of eBay as an electronic garage sale or flea market: reject stuff making the rounds. I was in for a surprise. In the early days, it might have been a way for people to offload their junk, but no longer. There was a multitude of chiming clocks. I placed a bid on one and was outbid at the last moment. Placed a bid on another clock. Lost that one. Peeved, I put a bid on two clocks simultaneously, thinking I’d get neither – and won both. (I was making all the elementary eBay mistakes in the first day.) I am now the proud owner of a grand 18th-century bracket clock and a smaller art deco darling. The bracket clock arrived with its innards banging around inside it. The clock didn’t cost much, but the repairs did, although the horologist who took care of it says I made a good investment. I have to say, I adore my clocks. I tend them like babies. And, yes, they comfort me. No snakes up the laundry drainpipe. That fateful Saturday morning, while I was waiting for my first clock bids to pan out, I decided to poke around and see what else was available. Just about everything. Not only that, I found that reputable dealers now put their wares on eBay. I like ethnographic objects, having inherited some handsome ones from my husband, so that’s where I went after the clocks. God, look at this stuff. I was jumping up and down in my seat. A cornucopia. The descriptions were often lengthy and lovingly written and provenance, where possible, was stated. I have since made a few modest purchases in that area and become email friends with a dealer who is recommending books and teaching me about tribal arts. I was hooked. Never has an addiction gripped me so quickly and thoroughly. For an entire weekend I didn’t work, read the newspapers, watch telly, listen to music or worry about George Bush. I fuelled myself with chocolate and coffee, walked the dog only when he threw himself at me, growling. I must have slept, but it was unwillingly. I was mesmerised. I compiled a list of all the things I’ve lusted after but could never afford and went hunting: a Persian carpet, a chandelier, a French day bed, an emerald ring. I must have looked at 3,000 rugs that first weekend, until my eyes gave out. It’s easy to get hooked because eBay is easy to use. Margaret Whitman, the chief executive, and her crew have thought of everything. Photographs and descriptions are detailed, sellers can be emailed with questions, payment methods are a breeze. Each eBayer has his or her home page so you can track auctions that you’ve entered and also what you’ve won, lost, or got your eye on. No hovering salespeople. In fact, no pushy anybodies. The prices are great; it’s acknowledged to be a buyers’ market. Tibetan chests that go for $3,000 in SoHo are $300 on eBay. Asafo (Ghanaian) flags, which my brother collects, carry price tags of thousands at high-end bricks and mortar dealers, but are $250 on eBay. If you have a good eye, know prices, and do your research, eBay is heaven. And endlessly interesting. For nearly every other transaction in this world, you need a lawyer. On eBay, everyone rates everyone else on a transaction. Nobody, neither buyer nor seller, wants to get flamed or dinged, because their ratings go down, their reputations end up in tatters, and their eBay futures fade. Because of this all-round transparency, civility reigns. Other feedback rating exercises haven’t had quite the same affect. Students rating their teachers has only resulted in grade inflation. Colleagues rating each other and their bosses in those workplace appraisals has meant not only a vast amount of wasted time, and score-settling on a scale not seen since the cultural revolution, but an abdication by many managers from old-fashioned managing: sweep personnel problems under the carpet, and let the appraisal process sort them out once a year. eBay is an intriguing business model. Objects find their price in a free market – what the market will bear – rather than the tag a dealer slaps onto them. And it’s enormously successful. While many dotcom ventures went down the plughole, eBay now handles goods worth $15bn every year, an amount that is growing at a rapid clip, with 150,000 small entrepreneurs making their living from it and 42m active buyers. The British arm of eBay has been rated the most popular e-commerce website in the country, with a third of all active internet users visiting every month. These sellers and buyers speak at the drop of a hat about being part of the eBay community: they feel and act like owners. Indeed, eBay is a collaborative exercise on a hitherto unknown scale, as its executives are only too aware. They often point out how useless the aggressive tactics they learned at business school are in this environment. Instead, they have had to become expert at listening, adapting and enabling. It would be revolutionary if this approach to managing businesses became widespread, and it just might. Already, the transparency of eBay transactions is proving contagious. As consumers become accustomed to transparency in both pricing and behaviour, they may demand it from mainstream companies. But as a buyer, to get the best out of eBay, you have to do your research and use your head: someone selling mint Louis Vuitton bags from Romania at rock bottom prices is probably peddling PVC copies. Sellers with good track records become "power sellers" – you can trust them. I have come across several people who have bought cars on eBay and been delighted. In fact, eBay is one of the largest sellers of used cars and car parts in the US. Industrial machinery is another booming area. People predict trouble as the company grows and mainstream companies sell their wares there. But I think Meg Whitman will figure it out. I’m not a collector; I just like eclectic stuff. For true collectors, eBay is the World Series every day. I talked to an acquaintance, Mark Gordon, who discovered eBay three years ago when he went looking for minnow buckets. (Minnow buckets are small galvanised iron buckets, often with 1950s-type logos on them.) Mark is a regular at Sotheby’s and Christie’s as well as being a garage sale habitu?. He has an apartment in the city and also two houses on the water on Long Island. It was for these houses that he wanted the minnow buckets, which, he said, he could find only occasionally at garage sales. He logged into eBay, and there were six. Now he rises around 5am to get a few hours of eBaying under his belt before he goes to work. He also collects 1940s boat cushions decorated with girlie images, pre-1960s flippers, Czechoslovakian lobster dishes, and he collects them by the hundreds. As he proudly relates, he’s up to his 599th eBay purchase. Mark says he has had enthusiasms before, but never one that has lasted this long. Mark’s son has caught the eBay bug and started collecting Danish modern furniture, and we fell to discussing a design show we’d attended the week before. Half the items there, Mark observed, he’d seen on eBay for pennies; they now had price tags of $5,000 or more. "Hey," he groused, "if people are stupid enough to spend their money that way when you can get the same things for practically nothing on eBay, what can you do?" A pause. "You know one of the things I really like about eBay? The packages arriving. Opening them up." A touching admission from a man of means. Who doesn’t like packages arriving? Just as the nerve endings on fingers and mouth play a part in the addiction to smoking, this is just one of the delights that play a part in the eBay addiction. Mark is passionate about eBay, as is Steve Budlong, another collector. Steve began collecting comics as a child from the smoke shop and the corner store. When he left home, he asked his mother to store the comics. She threw them out. To this day, he taunts her by reading out the value of individual comics she ditched: "Look, Ma, $20,000." With the persistence of a collector, he began again. As well as golden age comics, he now collects and sells original comic art, first world war posters, 1960s albums, and Fillmore and Avalon ballroom posters. I learned the word "completionist" from Steve. A collector can’t rest until he or she has them all: the whole set or series. For Steve, eBay is a way of recreating his childhood. "To find something again from your childhood, to touch it and smell it. There’s nothing like it," he said. I agree. A little way into my eBay addiction, I realised that I was recreating childhood memories, starting with the mantel clock. Also, I had an aunt who wore stacks of rings right up to her knuckles; I’m trying to duplicate those rings via eBay. And then there was the beautiful lost Chinese mother of pearl-inlay sewing box given to me by a great-aunt; through eBay, I’ve had the pleasure of conjuring it into existence again. Talking to Mark and Steve made me anxious – I get that way around collectors, probably because, in a peripatetic life, I have done worse than Steve’s mother and thrown away a king’s ransom in collectibles. So I sought out friends who are run of the mill eBayers like me: newlyweds Ramsey and Courtney McGrory. Ramsey is the keener of the two; he buys all his clothes – good brands, new – on eBay. In fact, he even bought his wedding tux there. "You have to be patient," he says, "but eventually what you want shows up." The couple are thinking of buying furniture on eBay but are worried about winning something large that doesn’t work. "I have two words for you," I advised. "Tape measure." Courtney told me eBay is one of the sites blocked at her corporation; not only were people spending hours on it, they were rushing out of meetings to see how an auction was faring. Ramsey told me about the eBay toolbar you can install to make your eBay life easier. I tried to download it but failed. Just as well. I’m trying to stay out of eBay, but it’s hard. I miss the thrill of having something up on my bidding page, the days and hours ticking down. I became adept at bidding in no time at all – in fact, was complimented by an old-timer on one good bidding war. I learned how to snipe, which is entering a last-minute bid that kills the competitors. (Some people use computer programs to do this in their absence.) To date I’ve bought 15 items from eBay; none were wallet-depleting and all were exactly as advertised, immensely pleasing and, with the exception of the clocks, expertly packed. I did return one piece of African sculpture which was tantalising in the photographs but impossible to live with – a Mbunda maiden being strangled by a python. Alas, eBay is the too-perfect distraction for a writer stuck at home. As I finish writing this, it occurs to me that my wastepaper basket is falling apart. Let’s just take a quick dekko at rattan baskets. Hmm, here’s a Chinese reed basket, supposedly Qing dynasty. But look at this! The dealer also has a Qing dynasty opera bench. Gorgeous, so old it has the quality of driftwood. Out with my tape measure to scout the apartment to see if there is room for it. The last thing I need is a Qing dynasty opera bench, even one as lovely as this. But an addict can rationalise anything.