Art market

How to do the eBay: The internet expansion of auction markets

Our art market correspondent, Paul Jeromack, describes how he has successfully sold antiques while sitting at his computer


On 26 April eBay underlined their art selling capacity by buying Butterfield & Butterfield, the San Francisco-based auctioneers. Investors welcomed the news and shares in eBay rose immediately by $11.88 to $212.

Christie’s and Sotheby’s are both planning internet auctions late this year, and the latter said that 1,500 dealers in the US and Europe had agreed to use only its website for selling goods through internet auctions

Pierre Omidyar, the San Jose-based young founder of eBay, (who is not known to have had tea with Sister Parrish or Mrs Jock Whitney) has made millions on those “below minimum reserve” items auction houses normally turn away as being not worth their time or expense to catalogue—the Wedgwood teacup, the baseball card collection, the Victorian silverplate étagère, the 1950s string of Christmas bubble-lights, to such mundane material as cameras, computer equipment and Mark McGwire's jockstrap.

Before eBay, Sotheby's and Christie's kept upping the price on the limits of what they would sell, and owners of perfectly good antiques and collectables were stranded, but with eBay, now anyone with a PC and a scanner can sell without even knowing what they have (an exceedingly rare 1850 amber Willington gothic pickle bottle, bought last summer for $3.00, sold via eBay in April for $44,100—the vendor had hoped to get $275). Could Sotheby’s or Christie’s have got this for the consignor? As any eBay fanatic knows, it is just as much fun to buy—there are over two million registered users.

One of the beauties of eBay is that it is one of the most beautifully and simply designed sites on the Web—I doubt that Sotheby's or Christie's could improve on it. It is almost alarmingly easy to both buy and sell.

All buyers and sellers have to register. It is free and fun to choose your eBay code name.

Some prefer to use their email address, but others let their imagination run and names as strange or allusive as “IbeGoofy” or “Rroseselavy” have appeared.

Once your new name is in place, you are all set.

How to buy

Let us say you have a yen for nineteenth-century silverplate made by the Tufts silverplate company. Do a word search for “Tufts”, check “search descriptions” and you will find not only silverplate but anything from Paramount star Sonny Tufts to Chenille bedspreads. Once you find what you are looking for, you can bid—but most savvy eBayers wait until the last minutes of the auction (the time on the eBay clock having replaced Greenwich Mean Time as a standard for many of us) and do a “Sniper attack bid” in the last sixty seconds. This has its pitfalls—you may already been outbid by a previous bidder, leaving you no time to re-bid.

How to sell

To sell on eBay is almost embarrassingly cheap, compared to the 10-15% charged by Sotheby’s or Christie’s. The insertion fee can be as modest as fifty cents and for items of $50 and up, it is only $2. The final value fee is based on the price: 5% of the amount up to $25, 2.5% of that part up to of the high bid from $25.01 to $1,000, and 1.25% of the balance of the high bid greater than $1000.01—for example, an item selling for $1,200 costs the seller just $28.13.

It is possible to sell an item on eBay without a picture, but 99% of sellers include illustrations, which are downloaded from a personal web page storage space. Some people swear by digital cameras, or use the on-line hosting services who will store your image inventory for you, but I scan snapshots into my AOL (America On Line) storage space (a process that one so-called “computer expert” claimed would take an hour per picture for him to do, but as a more honest professional demonstrated the process takes about two minutes). Most sellers realise that the most effective selling tools are big, sharp and clear images, with close up shots of any damage, with extensive condition notes in the text. Unfortunately, some consignors love to clutter their auctions with textured coloured backgrounds, animations or soundtracks. (Last 4 July, a set of silverplate forks I hoped to bid on was displayed on Old Glory while a computer-generated version of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” merrily tooted), but I've noted a decrease in these in the past year. Prospective buyers are encouraged to email the consignors with questions. Unlike most sales at Sotheby's or Christie's, the seller sets the reserve, though many prefer to sell without reserve (especially on modestly priced items) as this tends to encourage bidding. Auctions usually last seven days, but there are three-, five- and ten-day auctions.

After the auction (and why it pays to be honest)

After the auction, the buyers and sellers discover each other’s identities by clicking on each other’s name, giving their eBay password, and getting each other’s email addresses. Then, the seller gives shipping instructions, the address to send payment to, etc. The buyers sends a cheque or money order and gets the package in the mail or via UPS. Leaving feedback on each transaction is encouraged. Bad eggs who receive enough negative feedback are bounced from eBay, which encourages eBay users to be honest and to return merchandise the buyer is unhappy with. Nobody wants complaints to blot their feedback profile.

As millions of satisfied customers will attest, eBay is the wave of the future—an irresistible replacement for small antique shops who were largely driven out of business by the auction houses in the 1960s. It is unlikely that Pierre Omidyar had this in mind in 1995 when he created eBay so his wife could find an on-line method of refining her collection of Pez dispensers.