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eBay’s allure remains hidden treasures

If you’re a collector of almost anything, auctions can be fun, which is what makes eBay so interesting. Scout around a bit, and you might find a hidden treasure, one on which you can then apply your sporting nature by bidding against other collectors. But I think what makes eBay so enjoyable for some of us is that its auctions aren’t highly visible. There’s always the chance that a mislabeling of an item or a badly timed auction might mean you’re the only serious bidder.

All of that makes for the possibility of surprise, of undiscovered gems. That sense of possibility makes me wonder whether eBay is smart to make its recent deal with Sotheby’s. The storied auction house will begin broadcasting many, though not all, of its auctions live on eBay beginning this fall. That means opening up eBay’s customer base of 140 million to the refined world of 1961 Bordeaux, Louis Quatorze armoires and Matisse originals. The rarefied world of Sotheby’s thus merges with the far more chaotic digital marketplace, with results soon to be determined.

Stiff competition

I can see what’s in this for Sotheby’s, which would like an online sales strategy that works and is facing stiff competition from rival house Christie’s, a firm with burgeoning online plans of its own. In any case, Sotheby’s existing website sales showed a nice increase in 2013, up about 36 percent, so online auctions may be an unexploited market at the high end. For eBay, though, the prize seems less certain. The Sotheby’s connection seems to be about sprucing up eBay’s folksy image, but to my mind that very flea market atmosphere is part of the appeal.

If I ran eBay, I’d be thinking about what makes it popular. The best quality of the site is that it is uncurated – the listings range from utterly amateurish to highly professional, with every gradation in between. It’s harder to stumble upon total bargains today than it used to be, but not impossible. I’ve wound up snaring some excellent first editions by virtue of the apparent fact that few book collectors stumbled upon the auctions I found. That doesn’t happen often, but one or two outstanding buys are enough to keep me checking the site regularly.

Sotheby’s identity as the home of the finest in decorative art makes it unlikely that you’ll find an auction other collectors haven’t noticed. The Sotheby’s wing of eBay, which will be set up through categories on eBay’s site, will not feature the highest-end items – that Matisse I mentioned probably won’t end up on the dining room wall. But expect “mid-range” (for Sotheby’s) items between $5,000 to $100,000 to proliferate, an area where, according to The New York Times, the company is now realizing more than 50 percent of its business.

New customers

And expect all these items to be under tight scrutiny by bidders worldwide. By opening an eBay wing, Sotheby’s gains the chance to broaden this market segment and gain customers.

For the rest of us – and I’m talking about the garage sale, thrift shop, flea market prowlers in search of an undiscovered bargain – Sotheby’s will be too visible to be interesting. The gorgeous top-line 1936 Parker Vacumatic fountain pen I bought years ago and brought back to life with parts I also found on eBay clearly slipped by other collectors, maybe because of time of year, poor description or who knows what other eBay vagary.

Besides, like a flea market, eBay is home to the thrill of the hunt. I landed a poorly documented first edition of Carlos Romulo’s account of the fall of the Philippines in World War II for a pittance, then found that the seller had neglected to mention that the book, in superb condition, had a lengthy inscription from the author. Surprises like that keep me poking around antique shops and sweeping eBay’s more obscure listings. I’ll let others check out the brightly lit Sotheby’s.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at gilster@mindspring.com.