Bidding On The Good Stuff

Back in March of this year, Lewisburg, Pa., collector Richard Rushton-Clem decided to put a pickle jar he’d purchased at a tag sale up for sale on eBay, a popular on-line auction site. After a week of competitive bidding, the bottle – for which he had paid $3 – achieved a final sale price of $44,100.

“I knew it was unusual when I saw it, but I had no idea how unusual,” Mr. Rushton-Clem says of the hotly contested jar. Made in Willington, Conn., around 1850, the 11-inch amber bottle turned out to be the rarest size and color. “I was pleased when it reached $600, and by $1,000 I was ecstatic,” he recalls. “After that, I was in a state of shock.”

With stories like this, it’s no wonder that the antiques world is abuzz with talk of on-line auctions. At these sales conducted over the Internet, bidders vie for everything from tramp art and vintage kitchenware (and pickle jars!) to computers and classic cars – all from the comfort of a home office or family room.

A Growing Trendauc

“The number of auction sites has ballooned from only a handful of sites five years ago to more than 600 today,” says John Jackley, president of USA Web Internet Advertising, a Phoenix-based company whose Internet Auction List site serves as a link between Web surfers and auction companies offering items of every description. What’s more, Jackley reports, on-line auctions accounted for more than $2 billion dollars of Internet commerce last year alone.

Further evidence of the growing influence of these sales can be seen in the recent mega-mergers of on-line firms with traditional auction houses. The first joint venture by Sotheby’s and Auctions – a sale of baseball memorabilia-will begin on September 23. Guernsey’s, the New York City firm that sold Mark McGwire’s 70th homerun ball for just over $3 million in January, will link up with icollector to offer Elvis Presley memorabilia from October 8 to 10. And Butterfield & Butterfield’s roster is ready to feature on-line sales: The West Coast company was purchased earlier this year by eBay for $260 million in stock.

Collector Testimonials

Why have on-line sales become so popular, so fast? One reason many users point to is the variety of goods for sale. “Before I discovered eBay five months ago, I’d have to search for a long time to find a missing piece of a particular pattern,” says Nancy Kirschner, a New York City collector of American art pottery and dinnerware. “I might drive out of my way to go to a shop only to find pieces I already owned. Now I can log on and look for just a salad plate or just a teacup. Whatever you need usually turns up sooner or later.”

Another benefit of on-line sales is the convenience of being able to bid 24 hours a day, seven days a week, from anywhere on the globe. Case in point: Jeff Pressman, a busy California doctor with a predilection for such classic American folk art forms as weather vanes, hooked rugs, and painted furniture, relies on eHammer – a site devoted to antiques and collectibles – as his link to the marketplace. “The pieces I love are much easier to find in the Northeast,” he explains. “And with my schedule the way it is, I can’t get back there as often as I’d like. Now I can find them in my own home. It’s a huge kick.”

How They Work

On-line auctions last anywhere from one week to one month, during which time interested parties can register and place bids at their leisure. In lieu of hands-on previews, Web sites offer a photograph and a written description of each item. Many sites advise entering the maximum amount you are willing to pay for an item. The auction company initially starts you off at the minimum bid and incrementally raises the amount as other bidders join the sale. Most sites notify you via E-mail once you have been outbid.

“There are basically two approaches to bidding,” says Ruth Burell-Brown, an avid collector of jadeite, Depression glass, and painted furniture who discovered eBay this past winter when many of the antiques shops near her home on the eastern end of Long Island, New York, were closed. “You can either decide the most you’re willing to pay, place your bid, and forget about it, or you can follow the action right up to the end and keep raising the stakes the instant you get outbid. It depends how much you want something.” Another tip she swears by: “Enter an odd number – not $100, but $115.25. It just might put you over the top.”

Ripples on Antiques Row

The immense popularity of on-line auctions is undeniable, but could it also spell the end of the live auction as we know it? Not a chance, says Arlan Ettinger, Guernsey’s president. “There’s an air of excitement at a live auction that can never be replicated by a computer,” he points out. “The sport of eyeballing the person who is bidding against you is still alive and well.”

Bidding Smart

Read the Terms and Conditions each time you log on to a new site, as policies may differ from firm to firm.

Check the seller’s feedback. Most sites feature a rating system whereby past buyers can post positive or negative experiences.

Contact the seller before placing a bid, by E-mail or phone, to ask about the items for sale, payment concerns, and return policies.

Research each item that you are interested in buying to get a sense of what similar items have sold for in the past, and set a ceiling – a price above which you will not pay.

Pay attention to how many bidders participate in a sale. If there are only a few, chances are good that experts who have viewed the item question its authenticity.

Charge it! When dealing with larger firms that ensure customer privacy, pay by credit card. This method promises the best recourse in case of disputes.

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