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He's Sold on EBay

A garage sale vase that garnered $306 got him hooked on electronic dealing. Now he's looking for more stuff to auction off.


If you thought buying old stuff on EBay was exciting, you should try selling it. When that little vase I found for 25 cents a few years back at a garage sale sold recently for $306, I was hooked, ready to put the family silver up for auction.

For nearly two years, a box marked "to sell or pack away" sat next to my desk. These treasured items had been bumped from my shelves by newer treasures, and in the past I'd have gotten rid of them at a garage sale. But I decided to give the electronic auction house EBay a try (there are several other similar auction spots on the Web, but EBay is the granddaddy).

It's easy to sign up, which is one reason I plunged right in, listing a whopping seven items right off the bat, including that vase. All you need is a credit card and an e-mail address.

The credit card allows the auction site to charge sellers for the listing and sales commission. While the charges seem small--only 50 cents to list a $20 item, for instance, and then 5% of the final price--it quickly adds up. In no time, I owed EBay $56.75 and had yet to receive a single payment from my buyers, though I had already sold the seven original items and now was on my second batch. Dazzled by the prices my items were fetching, I soon emptied my "to sell" box and quickly found more.

Buying, and apparently selling, can become addictive, according to the October issue of EBay magazine (yes, the site has its own glossy). Reading a list of symptoms of online addiction, I realized I suffered from several. "Are you preoccupied with auctions?" (Just ask my wife.) "Do you feel restless or irritable when attempting to cut down or stop online bidding," or in my case, selling? (Well, now that you mention it. . . .) The article included one cautionary tale about a woman whose husband divorced her after she spent more than $12,000. It warned that some people even risked getting fired by bidding while at work. (I rationalized that selling during my lunch break was different, and that maybe I would make $12,000.)

I blame this behavior on that vase.

I knew it was genuine California pottery--it said "California Faience" on the bottom--but I had no idea it was worth so much. Pottery has never been my thing, and I bought the thing just to put flowers in and because it was an unusual lilac color.

Next, I listed a pair of very old oil lamps and mentioned in the description that I thought one might have been handblown into a mold. I was e-mailed all sorts of questions about this lamp, and it was soon apparent that I had something special. A starting bid of $10 climbed to a heady $152.50 over the next seven days.

One of the great pleasures of EBay is finding a buyer for something someone else has deemed worthless. One dealer told us that an old porcelain doll wasn't worth much. So we listed her on EBay, starting at a reasonable $20. Seven days later, after 15 bids, she fetched $127.50. Not worth much? Hah!

There are also disappointments, of course. Some items don't receive a single bid, or sell for the bare minimum. We couldn't sell some 19th century pressed-glass goblets no matter how we tried listing them, and a favorite old Jacquard coverlet sold for its minimum, though to an obviously delighted collector in Thousand Oaks.

Communicating with other EBay members (when you sign up, you become one of 15.8 million members) is part of the fun. It's important to check your e-mail frequently to see if bidders have questions ("Is the burner in the tall oil lamp a two-tube burner, or a single tube?"). Bidders often know more than you do about your items but need to be sure before they will bid any higher.

You can actually learn a lot from the e-mail you get. I listed a little iron something that had a patent date of 1874 emblazoned on it. I had no idea what it was and simply called it an iron "gizmo," but a member in New York wrote "Hi. I'm not a bidder, but it's for holding sadirons and lifting stove hole covers." (Sadirons, it turns out, are the heavy clothes irons that were warmed on wood-burning stoves.) The gizmo went for $10 to someone with the EBay handle "stovestuff."

One key to selling on EBay is making available a good, clear photograph, and the site has directions about how to do that.

(Some camera stores can also help. Ritz Camera Centers, for instance, will put a roll of film on a special Web site for 60 days for only $4.99.)

The auction begins as soon as a listing is submitted. I tended to check my progress a little too often at first--about every five minutes.

But there's a good reason to check frequently, and that's to catch bidder errors. One fellow wanted to bid $85 on my vase but typed in $8,500. I honored his request to erase his bid. Once, I had meant to cancel an auction, but instead concluded it prematurely, and had to apologize profusely to its single bidder.

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