If you frequent eBay, chances are you’ve already guessed the most overused word. Even if you haven’t guessed it, you’ve seen it. Sellers slap it on the title of their items with little or no thought to its meaning. To sellers, it’s a way to attract attention and point out the desirability of their merchandise. Just before beginning the column I searched for the word on eBay and found it in approximately 1.5 million titles. When I searched for the word in both the titles and descriptions the count jumped to 9.2 million. Granted, eBay is a huge site. The search for common words will bring up large numbers of hits: glass 1.4 million, antique 863,000, and collectible 166,000. The very definition of the most overused word on eBay indicates it should not be found often. Encarta defines it as: not happening or found often, particularly interesting or valuable, especially to collectors or scholars because only a few exist. True, eBay is a huge site, but can it really include 9.2 million items that are “not found often” or “particularly interesting or valuable…because only a few exist”? I think not. What is this most overused word? Rare.
Technically, a claim of rarity can be made for any item. Like snowflakes, no two items are identical and are therefore one-of-a-kind. This means that the last roll of toilet paper, carton of milk, and loaf of bread you purchased can all be said to be rare, but are they really rare? Technically, yes, but they are not significantly rare. Try selling your loaf of bread as a rare, one-of-a-kind item and see what kind of offers you get.
The antique and collectible items listed as rare on eBay are scarcer than a loaf of bread, but not by much in many cases. I’ve seen a Depression glass amber vegetable bowl in the Sharon pattern advertised as rare even though it’s so common it one can easily be purchased for $5. I’ve spotted stoneware jars listed as rare even though similar jars can be found with ease in antique shops and malls. I’ve even run across items described as rare that can currently be purchased in Target. Yes, rare is an overused word on eBay, quite likely the most overused and improperly used word of all.
For collectors, the definition of rare is tighter than the definition in general. For a piece to be rare it has to be very hard to find and quite unusual. I’ve collected antiques for forty years now. I run across an item I consider rare perhaps once a year. I collect what is considered a rare Depression glass pattern—Parrot. As a pattern it is more difficult to find than many others. I can often search through an entire antique mall or show without finding a single piece. Even so, some pieces in the pattern turn up over and over again. Creamers are always popping up on eBay and oval vegetable bowls show up quite often as well. These pieces are not rare, even though they are in a rare pattern. Tumblers are scarce enough they are valued at nearly $200 each. It can be argued that the tumblers are rare. They don’t turn up often. On the other hand, they do come up for sale now and then, so perhaps it would be more accurate to say they are semi-rare. There are only about three dozen pitchers in the Parrot pattern. Now those are rare! Hot plates are extremely hard to find too. In all my years of collecting the pattern, I have only seen two hot plates offered for sale. That’s probably why such small pieces of glass sold for $800 each.
Why bother discussing the overuse of the term rare? The answer is simple—misuse of the word can lead to overpaying for antiques and collectibles. The term rare is an important one in the world of antiques and can lure one into paying too much. The word is the most dangerous on a subconscious level. Even when an experienced collector knows an item isn’t truly rare, having it described as such by a seller can enhance the appeal of a piece. Collectors should completely ignore the word “rare” and instead focus on the value of a piece and how difficult it will be to find another. Thinking about the difficulty of finding a similar piece brings us right back to rarity, but actually pondering how long it will take to find another piece similar to the one present gives one a much clearer picture of what an item is actually worth. I need one more 10-ounce green Parrot tumbler to complete a set of six. Such a tumbler is worth about $165 and they don’t come up for sale often. I recently passed on one of these tumblers priced at $185, even though I knew it might well be months before I had a chance to buy another. I balanced the cost with the wait and ignored the term “rare” that can be applied to the piece with some justification. I didn’t allow the word “rare” to induce me to pay too much. Rare is a word that all collectors should beware. While there are truly rare items out there, most items tagged as rare do not deserve the title. I have some very nice pieces in my collections, but I only consider two of the items I own rare. I consider even the most hard-to-find pieces in my Parrot collection to be only semi-rare.
The final danger of the term rare is that is can lead to overpricing. Recently, I’ve found two pieces of Depression glass on eBay that I would rate as rare. Both are in the Mayfair pattern, which is not rare in itself, but these pieces are yellow which is indeed a rare color in the pattern. The problem is, both pieces are highly overpriced. One is a 7” vegetable bowl. In mint condition, it lists for $175, but the example on eBay is priced at $300, even though it has significant chipping. In its current condition, I would hesitate to pay $50 for the piece. The other piece is a covered candy dish. In mint condition it’s valued at $495, but the asking price on eBay is $1,050 for an example that may or may not have a repaired lid. There is no denying the either of these pieces are rare. I’ve never seen another example of either for sale before. I believe both of these items are way over-priced, even if they were in mint condition. Some sellers fail to understand that the listed value takes into account the rarity of the item and overprice their items. They have a right to set any price they wish, of course, but I wonder if such pieces will ever sell?
Rare is a word to beware, especially on eBay. Don’t let it sway you into paying too much. There are rare items out there, but you’re not likely to see many of them in your lifetime. Remember that, the next time you spot a piece marked with the four-letter-word of the collecting world.