EBay opens auction markets as well as windows to the past

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A 1944 menu from The Tavern advertises prime rib for $1.50.

A 1944 menu from The Tavern advertises prime rib for $1.50.

Founded 15 years ago by French-Iranian computer programmer Pierre Omidyar, eBay has revolutionized the auction business.

Often described as the “the world’s marketplace,” eBay created and still dominates Internet-based auctions throughout the world.

Accounts of eBay’s origin vary.

One popular myth has it that Omidyar created the site to sell his then-girlfriend’s collection of Pez dispensers, while another version says the company’s first sale was a broken laser pointer for $14.83. According to the story, the astonished Omidyar contacted the buyer to ask whether he realized that the pointer didn’t work, only to be informed that the buyer collected broken laser pointers.

Whether true or not, the tale describes eBay’s market niche.

For many generations, auctions were uniquely local phenomena. Every city of any size had an auction house, which held frequent sales of goods derived from estates, from downsizing individuals, from families who had cleaned out their attics, from closing or distressed businesses and from anyone who wanted to get rid of stuff.

Such establishments were patronized by antique dealers, private collectors, young couples furnishing their first house, bargain hunters and auction junkies who would fill their basements with bargain-priced items from sellers’ basements.

For the pickers and dealers who sought to make a buck on such transactions, knowledge was power. In those halcyon, pre-Google days, sellers and auctioneers might be unaware that a dusty old painting with an unfamiliar signature might, in the right market, have more than decorative value.

Sellers quickly learned that eBay, for an insignificant charge, exposed their items to a worldwide market. Buyers in Florida might not be interested in a 1920s-era tinted photograph of Pikes Peak taken by noted Colorado Springs photographer Harry Standley, but what about Colorado collectors? Wouldn’t they be interested?

Typing “Colorado Springs” into eBay’s search engine earlier this week with the modifiers “auctions only,” “all categories” and “include title and description” yielded 1,447 results.

Items listed included jewelry, stock certificates, baseball cards, stamps, coins, automobiles and appropriately quirky merchandise for which there was little demand in a seller’s home market.

Interested in starting an intimate little theater downtown to compete with Kimball’s? A seller in La Junta has 65, 1950s-era theater seats, upholstered in red leatherette, in apparently perfect condition. Minimum starting bid: $45 each. If you want all 65, he’ll throw in the last five for free.

Or maybe you’d enjoy reading a profusely illustrated tour guide to the Pikes Peak region, including aerial photos depicting the “Thrilling Beauty of Metropolitan Colorado Springs.”

Are you a book collector? You might want to bid on an 1884 first edition of “Ramona,” Springs author Helen Hunt Jackson’s powerful story of our nation’s shameful treatment of Native Americans in California, offered by a San Francisco bookseller.

And for all of us who might consider splurging on a Valentine’s Day dinner at The Broadmoor’s historic restaurant, the Tavern, a menu dated Sunday, Sept. 10, 1944 makes interesting reading.

You could have started with a shrimp cocktail, enjoyed prime rib au jus with hash browns and creamed corn, and finished off your meal with chocolate chiffon pie-all for $2.10.

Alas for inflation! Offered by a seller in Waconia, Minnesota for a starting bid of $5.99, the menu is nearly three times as expensive as the meals it advertised 66 years ago.

eBay and its competitors have in turn created opportunities for thousands of small businesses.

Colorado Springs businessman Steve Pletka, who had sold items on eBay since the late 90’s, founded “Consider it Sold,” an online consignment store, during 2004.

“We’re just like any other consignment store,” he said. “We take items on consignment and sell them. The difference is that we have different partner businesses, such as eBay.”

A game-worn Soviet hockey jersey sold for $28.98 on eBay.

A game-worn Soviet hockey jersey sold for $28.98 on eBay.

Like many start-up business owners, Pletka founded his firm when he lost his job. Interestingly enough, his former employer was his first client.

“I’m an electrical engineer,” Pletka said, “and when my employer, Skyline Electronics, went out of business in late 2003, I made a deal with the company’s owner. I told him that he could either have a traditional auction, and get a couple of pennies on the dollar, or he could consign all the stuff to me, and we’d split the proceeds. I paid for a warehouse to put the stuff, and we eventually sold it all for several hundred thousand, and that kind of launched the business.”

Early this week, Consider it Sold listed 94 items for auction on ebay, as well as 1,400 on non-auction sections of the popular site.

Two items had attracted particularly spirited bidding from hockey fans across the nation. A game-worn jersey from the U.S. National Team eventually sold after 24 bids for $371. 66, while a companion jersey from the now-defunct Soviet team brought 10 bids, and seemed a bargain at a mere $28.98.

One Response to EBay opens auction markets as well as windows to the past

  1. eBay used to be great for auctions but in the las couple of years they have downplayed auctions while promotion retail-style fixed price listings. As a result the averave auction gets less than 2 bids. Seems sad since auctions are what made eBay great and Pierre rich.

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    Jacob
    February 5, 2010 at 3:16 pm