Rare Victorian - Are You Selling Yourself Short Selling On Ebay?

Are You Selling Yourself Short Selling On Ebay?

ebay auction Are You Selling Yourself Short Selling On Ebay?

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ebay auction Are You Selling Yourself Short Selling On Ebay?

James Conrad and Steve Sika commented on a recent post about a pair of high-end Neo-Grec chairs that were being sold on Ebay (unsuccessfully) and I thought I’d move Steve’s question into it’s own post as it deserves some more visible discussion.  Here’s what Steve had to say:

I continue [to] ask myself if a fine auction house adds credibility to an outstanding item?   I was always under the impression that outstanding items  sell themselves regardless.  With all due respect to the auction industry – MOST do a FANTASTIC job…..but does selling on eBay as an individual “lessen” the value or credibility of an item or a sellers reputation?   I would like to hear your thoughts on this.  Steve Sika

My feeling is that yes, your higher-end antiques (not those with 3 digit sale prices) will perform better at auction houses than they will on Ebay.  One need only look at the price difference from here to here to see recent concrete examples (the latter link with 5x-7x the price on the former).  I believe that the discrepancy between Ebay and Auction prices is due to how Ebay tends to push those higher-end buyers away, taking their deep pockets elsewhere (and the price competition with it).

When I refer to selling at auction, I am referring to a quality auction such as Cowan’s, Flomaton’s, Fontaine’s, Neal, etc. and not your local basement clean-out auction house.  I’ve seen dealers buy at one lower-end auction and drive their truck 30 miles to a higher-end auction and flip the items for a 40% gain, so not all auctions are created equal.

I think Steve is right that outstanding items sell themselves, regardless.  But will the final PRICE be meaningfully higher at an auction, is the key question.

Herter Brothers Chair And Beanie Babies?

On Ebay your potential buyer is buying antiques on a site that also sells iPods, Beanie Babies, and Bluetooth headsets.  The experience for the buyer is less than one befitting Herter Brothers collectors.  With your buyer greeted by an image of comic books “ending soon” they don’t get that warm and fuzzy that they’re in the right place.

Ebay Is Non-Descriminating On Condition

The condition and quality of the items on Ebay is generally less than the condition of those at auction.  Yes, good and bad can be found in both arenas, but I would say that my statement is accurate for the majority of items.

Auction houses can turn away sub-optimal items – Ebay will not.  This creates a natural gravity for people who are buying the best to go where they can find them in the best condition – and buy them ready to use today.  That puts the bargain shoppers on Ebay and the discriminating buyers willing to pay the most, at auctions.

No Special Niche Sales

If you can wait to sell your item during a niche auction sale, you have an even better chance to sell at the highest dollar.  Ebay does not have these in our areas of interest.  Niche sales queue up consigned items to be sold together under a single sale where they are closely related on region of origin, classification, or age.  The good news is that it attracts rabid buyers in narrow, highly-competitive niches.  The bad news is that these niche sales may only come up once a year or worse.

I will be selling my 1870 Philadelphia Litho in an upcoming “Pennsylvania Sale” at Freemans.  I had to wait months for that sale to finally arrive, but I expect it to do 3x-10x better than putting it immediately on Ebay due to the narrow topical niche and the special collectors that follow it.  The auction house will go out of it’s way to advertise in the right places to reach these Pennsylvania collectors.

Questionable Sellers’ Resumes

There is a greater trust from buyers for attributions made by a prominent auction house with a Director of Decorative Arts than for “grannysattic (2342) Power Seller”.  Who would you believe?  This will send your pool of good buyers to compete on high-end items elsewhere.  Designers or high-end collectors may shy away from gambling with their dollars on Ebay.

Yes, these collectors should have the “eye” to not need attributions from “grannysattic”, but why spend your time digging on Ebay for the needle in the haystack when you can just wait for the auction catalogs with pre-researched items with good provenance to show up in your mailbox.

In-Person Examinations

High-end items naturally lend themselves to needing inspection or at least a rock-solid return policy.  Seeing the condition in person removes any doubts that the seller may have on what they are getting for their money.

Also, the more people that see and touch your item, the more competitive bidders you will have driving the price up.  At an auction house, potentially 100s or 1,000s of people will inspect your item in person before it is sold and they usually have a week or more to do so.

On Ebay, I’ve sold hundreds of items and only had one person pre-inspect any of them.  People who shop in their PJs aren’t generally willing to go out of their way to drive just to see one item.


Live auctions are just far more exciting than Ebay.  Excitement = higher prices.  When buyers see the determined faces on those five people across the room bidding aggressively against them, they will tend to up the ante and bid a bit more than they came in expecting.  Adrenaline has a direct effect on price as does the natural tendency to not appear as the loser.  Those human drivers aren’t as acutely present when everyone is bidding anonymously in a digital world.

Quality Inventory

I would argue that the majority of the really good stuff on Ebay is inventory from their Live Auctions which Ebay is ending on December 31st.   That has another repellent effect on high-end buyers, driving them away to new or other venues.  Couple that will the hikes in seller fees and requiring Paypal for payments (no cash/check), Ebay is driving the remaining quality sellers away to open their own online stores.  With declining quality inventory, the buyers competing on your items are searching more and more for items elsewhere.  Declining demand equates to a decline in prices.

In my opinion, as long as you don’t need to sell something right now, you’ll probably always do significantly better selling your quality antiques at an [high-quality] auction or consigning them with a reputable dealer, especially one with a following in the appropriate niche for your item.  Any differential in sellers fees should be overcome by the higher price that you should realize.

I’m interested in your opinions on the above discussion and you can provide your thoughts in the comments area below.  Thanks go to Steve for the thought-provoking question.

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  • james conrad - September 22, 2008

    I would add the most important quality in selling antiques is trust, particularly with new collectors . Given a choice between trusting an Ebay seller & Christies on the authenticity of a piece for instance is not even close.

    To be fair, Ebay was set up as a web based fea market and has been a smash success at that business. Then theres the 2 tier Ebay structure where many major auction houses do not accept pay pal or credit cards of any type, not to mention you must qualify to bid with them.

    All in all, for this and many other reasons i suspect Ebay has decided to go back to its core flea market biz and leave the middle market and above antique business to the traditional auction houses. I say this is a smart move by Ebay, as they were little more than a web server for the auction houses @ 5 points and no fees to ebay at all.

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