Peggy Whiteneck, Freelance Writer

PO Box 303
East Randolph, Vermont 05041

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Buying Safe and Smart
at Internet Auction

There are many advantages to buying collectibles at internet auctions, the 800-pound gorilla of which is eBay. I don't buy a lot of stuff at internet auction, but I've had some wonderful experiences on eBay®. The advantages of internet auction buying include expanded access to scarce items and (generally) lower prices than can be found elsewhere on the secondary market.

Still, internet auctions don't really offer the instant gratification that is the virtual promise of the Web. An auction typically lasts over several days, which means the winning bidder has to wait to take ownership. (eBay® offers a "Buy It Now" option, but relatively few sellers or bidders use it.) Then the buyer has to wait for payment to be processed and/or for the item to be shipped. In essence, internet auctions are a high-tech form of mail-order sales. As such, they're subject to the same perils and inconveniences of any other kind of mail-order.

This Lladró grouping of three mischievous kittens in a basket (model number 1444) is still being produced and retails for $625. With that delicate handle and all that separately applied flowerwork, it's just the sort of thing I'd never buy on eBay - no matter how cheap the price. (Just imagine the shipping risk!) I bought this one at an antiques mall for well under retail. (Photos this page by the author, ©Peggy Whiteneck.)

Internet auctioneers vary widely in their expertise and dependability. Many of them have no idea what they're selling, so their claims as to maker attribution, age, and condition aren't always accurate. For many eBayers, their idea of "research" is to do an eBay® search for similar items. In this way, inaccuracies often get perpetuated across auction descriptions written by multiple sellers. This is real caveat emptor territory, folks!

And I do know people who have had truly awful things happen to them in internet auctions. Obviously, the more frequently one shops on eBay® or at other internet auction venues, the more likely it is that the law of averages will generate unfavorable outcomes. These perils can include misrepresentation of merchandise (knowing or otherwise), poor packing and shipping that results in damage to goods purchased, exorbitant insurance and shipping charges, and even large-scale scams in which buyers are bilked of millions of dollars on high-end items that were never delivered.

Despite these risks, eBay® has an irresistible allure for many buyers. The box below contains some tips to maximize your enjoyment and mininimze your losses when purchasing items at Internet auction.

You Don't Have to Be a Victim

  • Avoid expensive internet auction purchases; if you've got that kind of money to spend on antiques and collectibles, you can afford the protections and assurances that come of buying from reputable sources with proven reliability. (It's not smart to "buy it on the cheap" if you get scammed out of hundreds of "bargain-price" dollars.)
  • Know your own risk tolerance. Any of us would be mad if a purchase goes bad, but it's a lot less painful to lose $10 than $100. Ask yourself at what price point you'll begin to feel the pinch if you lose money to an unscrupulous seller; then make it a point to bid under that amount.
  • If the item you're buying has any value to it, don't try to cut corners by cutting out shipping insurance.
  • Ask questions: if the seller doesn't include a picture of the mark, ask for one; if the seller doesn't mention condition, ask for a condition description. Remember that even "on the ground," your definition of "perfect condition" and a dealer's definition of "perfect condition" may be two quite different things. (I once heard a professional antique dealer describe a Rockingham book flask she was offering for sale as being "mint" when anyone with a decent eye could see it was banged all to hell.)
  • Look at seller feedback and avoid anyone whose record shows negative patterns: not responding to emails, taking too long to ship, mispresenting condition, etc.

    I bought this nearly-life-size Hispania (a now-defunct Lladró subsidiary) ceramic leopard cub on eBay for $14.99. Was it a bargain? Well, another large Hispania animal model recently went out on eBay for more than $200. At the price I paid for this one, I could afford the risks of the mail order purchase. And yes, Virginia, I paid for shipping insurance!

  • Realize that you're taking a bigger risk on sellers with low feedback numbers, indicating that they're either new to the site or (much worse) that they've changed their seller IDs to escape a trail of negative feedback on a former identity. (eBay® now has a tool to enable buyers to track the ID history of a seller who has changed eBay IDs. Pay attention!) Everybody on eBay started out new, so I'm not suggesting you avoid purchases from "newbies," only that you recognize the risk.
  • Never buy from sellers who demand instant electronic payment (i.e., within 24-48 hours), and be wary of sellers who only accept PayPal. Some of the worst internet auction scams have been credit card or PayPal fraud, in which the real purpose of instant payment was to allow the scammer to collect the money and vamoose before law enforcement authorities were on to him.
  • Beware of counterfeits and knock-offs on expensive items. This is a growing problem in everything from pottery and porcelain to jewelry. Anyone can forge a mark, but forgeries are often surprisingly incompetent. If it looks like a copy, it probably is.
  • Unless it's direct from the manufacturer or from an authorized dealer, avoid purchase of extraordinarily delicate glass and porcelain that would be difficult to package and, thus, at above-average risk for shipping damage.
  • Don't believe everything you read in the auction descriptions. If the information sounds "hinky," try to verify it from other sources.

If much of what I've said above seems common sense, good for you. But judging from the moans and groans I hear from my fellow collectors, common sense is too often recognized in hindsight after being abandoned in the breach.

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