By Mark A. Roeder

In the beginning, eBay and other internet auctions were a bit like the Gold Rush. Thousands were hastening to get in and make their fortunes. It was a new frontier, an untapped source for antiques, filled with dangers and possibilities. Suddenly, items once nearly impossible to find could be located with relative ease. Sellers could attract bidders from all over the country, the world even, something only possible before with mail auctions. Many traditional auctioneers feared it might be the end of the line for their antique auctions and household sales. Many antique shop and mall owners worried that eBay might drive them into extinction. Many years have now passed and the worst fears of auctioneers and dealers have not been realized, but the gold rush days are over. So how do internet and traditional auctions compare now that the new frontier is settled?

For buyers there are obvious advantages and disadvantages to both types of auctions. EBay definitely come out on top when it comes to selection. For years I’ve collected a rare pattern of Depression glass called “Parrot.” Before eBay, I had to travel to a major antique show or flea market to locate even a few examples. If a flea market or antique show had scores of dealers, I’d consider myself lucky if I could find as many as a dozen pieces. Today, I can hop onto eBay and find a bigger selection anytime. I can find what I want without leaving the house (sometimes).

Traditional auctions have a clear advantage when it comes to antique furniture and other large pieces. Such items are sold on eBay, but the cost of shipping can be prohibitive. Of course, one can often pick such items up in person, but if the buyer lives in Indiana and the seller in Wyoming, it can be one expensive trip. It’s far easier to browse local auction ads and wait until the desire piece comes up for bids. Traditional auctions save buyers money on shipping not only on large items, but on everything. It can easily cost $10 to ship a single small item. Purchasing that item at a local sale is an automatic savings of $10 or more.

One must remember that traveling expenses can run more than shipping costs. If the auction is local, the cost of fuel may be insignificant, but if one is traveling even twenty miles, it begins to add up. An auction fifty miles away requires one hundred miles of driving and depending on your gas mileage the cost can be significant. This is a great disadvantage for traditional auctions, but if one can combine an auction outing with other errands, the cost can be much reduced. There is also the enjoyment factor to be considered. I don’t think any of us want to spend our lives in front of a computer. A trip to the auction can make for quite a pleasant day of sightseeing. This is something eBay just can’t offer.

A hybrid of tradition and internet auction exists as well. Some auctions take place entirely online, but the items are picked up in person. I love this type of sale. I don’t have to spend hours waiting for an item to sell and I don’t have to pay shipping to get it either. I merely go and pick it up.

Traditional and internet auctions both have dangers to beware. The danger of a traditional sale is lack of attention to detail. Failing to properly check out what is being sold puts one in danger of purchasing a damaged piece one thought was in excellent condition. Not listening to the terms of the sale can cause one to purchase a set of 1950’s chairs “times the money” when one believed the price was “for the lot.” Those purchasing at internet auction have more dangers than these to fear. There are a far greater percentage of dishonest sellers online than there are dishonest auctioneers. In more than forty years of attending auctions, I’ve run across only one auctioneer I found to be dishonest. On eBay, I’ve had sellers fail to send the items and have found pieces to be in worse condition than described. The eBay feedback system helps warn buyers against dishonest sellers and their number is few, but there is still a much greater risk on eBay than there is at a local sale.

It isn’t just the dishonest that one must beware; it is the unknowledgeable. While most traditional auctioneers are experienced and knowledgeable about antiques, a vast number of eBay sellers know little or nothing about their merchandise. They may incorrectly describe items not out of dishonesty, but out of ignorance. Their idea of what constitutes damage may be quite different from yours as well. At a traditional sale, one can inspect each piece for him or herself. At internet sales one must rely on the seller’s description.

Reproductions are a danger at both types of sales, but may be harder to spot on eBay. It is the responsibility of the buyer to educate and protect himself, but bear in mind it’s harder to identify a reproduction from a photo than it is when actually handling the object.

Damage is always a danger and antiques often get rough handling in the mail. Postal rates are high, but don’t include the safe delivery of your package. It’s wise to insure against possible damage, but this further adds to costs. Insurance, like shipping, is one of those costs that one must keep in mind when figuring the bottom line. There is no guarantee the U.S. Postal Service will pay off on a claim either. I’ve had well-packed pieces destroyed and have gone to the trouble of filling out all the paperwork and still received nothing.

Auction fever is a danger at both types of sales but is far more virulent at traditional auctions. It’s far too easy to get caught up in the spirit of bidding and one can easily shell out much more than originally intended. There is also the added disadvantage of actually seeing the other bidders. If one bidder is buying up all the items that have caught your eye it’s easy to start thinking “you’re not getting this one!” It can be equally annoying when one bids on eBay only to immediately receive the message “you’ve been outbid by another bidder.” This can induce one to bid again and again, but there is far less passion involved. One is far more likely to walk away and let another bidder have an item than at a traditional sale.

Both types of auctions have their advantages and disadvantages. Which is best depends on what one collects and a myriad of other factors. When I’m looking for furniture, I hit local sales. When I’m looking for smaller items, I check out both. When I’m seeking the hard to find, I also check out both but have greater expectations with eBay. I don’t think there will ever come a day when I depend solely on internet or traditional auctions. Both have much to offer. When you’re looking for antiques, it pays to check out every source.