Odd Bidding on eBay
By Bruce McKinney
Recently I ran across a listing on eBay for a book that was achieving a price far beyond what it commands on listing sites. I know that some people bid primarily on eBay and may be unaware of other listing sites but I have assumed they are a minority, and probably a small minority, of eBay book bidders. The title of this book is "The American Revolution, from the commencement to the disbanding of the American Army; Given in the Form of a Daily Journal..." by James Thatcher, M.D. It is described in its eBay listing as the "very rare early and original 1862 edition..." Actually it's not that uncommon and in fact it's a second edition. The original edition was printed in Boston in 1823 and was most recently sold in 1999 at Swann's for $90. For those who couldn't wait for the next first edition the later edition on eBay brought $360. Had they looked on Abe they could have bought 5 copies for that price and still had change. It's a pity it isn't a great copy.
What is more surprising is how accommodating the bidders were. eBay hides bidder identities so we don't know who they are but their actions in pursuit of this item seemed to defy logic. Most bidders wish to pay less. This happy group seemed to want to pay more. Typically an eBay bidder will "save" the interesting listings in their eBay account, later receive notice from eBay the day on the final day of the sale. A bidder may then place a bid in the declining hours, minutes or seconds of the listing. If the bidder uses auto-bid software their bid will be placed in the final seconds. It's very easy and therefore kind of mystifying that so many bidders in pursuit of an unimportant book bid so early and often.
This past month I looked at the most recent 26 lots I acquired on eBay to see how many bids on average were placed during the full life of the listings. For this group that number is 2.9 bidders including myself. For Thatcher's Journal 17 bidders stepped up. This is impressive if somewhat illogical support.
There would seem to be four potential reasons for such bidding:  the item is fabulous and can not be ignored;  the price is so low it simply attracts marginal bidders;  the description is exceptional and/or  someone is messing around. Neither one nor two seem probable. Three is possible. The description is voluminous and spreads its wings broadly. It's possible such a description might attract a larger audience than is typical. However, for the bidding to sail well beyond common sense and to move well above most alternative copies listed elsewhere, these bidders would need to pass [or fail] two more tests. They have to be entirely oblivious to all other copies AND there would need to be many unaware bidders. Every one occasionally sees an auction lot run to the moon on the wings of two bidders in the grips of temporary insanity. But for so many bidders to be caught up in this the description must have been freighted with aphrodisiac. This is quite a feat.
It’s also possible that a very experienced seller might have a very large following. In my case, for the most recent 26 lots I purchased, the average seller had 5,466 eBay feedbacks. This seller had 158. It doesn't appear that experience and following are factors. Since these sales expired on July 30th the seller hasn't posted anything more.
Odd Bidding on eBay
Now you may be thinking that one lot could be a fluke. Everyone who has eBay experience has gone home scratching their head about something. So what's the chance that lightning strikes 4 times for the same seller?
This seller in fact offered four items all ending within minutes of each other. All delivered above market results.
One is "Biographical Sketches of the Signers of the American Independence." The first edition is 1845. This is the 1859 edition, apparently the fifth edition. On Abe recently there were 9 copies of editions dated between 1848 and 1860 and none cost more than a hundred dollars. They start at $18.95. The recent copy on eBay brought $137.16 as 12 bidders fought it out.
Another is "The Illustrated Life of Washington," the 1860 second edition. The seller describes it this way:
"The Book is an original 1860 edition with original Blue cloth boards and gilt scrollwork and decorations on the covers and spine. It measures approx. 9 1/4" tall by 6 1/4" wide. The covers are well worn with some loss to the gilding. Edges also have moderate wear. Spine shows heavy wear with chipping to the material in places. Front hinge is slightly loose but still holds very firmly to the spine. Rear hinge is tight. The binding itself is also tight with no loose or missing pages except the pull out illustration of Mt. Vernon which has long been torn out. All other illustrations are intact and present. The pages are toned from age and have light foxing and damp stains throughout which is quite common for volume that is nearly a century and a half old. The full page engravings even retain their original protective tissue guards. All told, a nice, early copy of a very scarce Revolutionary War book with some very interesting facts and engravings not easily found elsewhere."
On Abe there are 10 comparables ranging in price from $25 to $129. If you really prefer the 1860 second edition there's a copy for $50. Most are probably negotiable. On eBay it brought $158.24
Then there is "Nooks and Corners of the New England Coast." This book earned a respectable $124.50. That amount would have bought you three copies of the same edition on Abe and left you enough to subscribe to the AED for month to save yourself even more money on your next purchases.
Odd Bidding on eBay
And now for a few final notes.
Running a book up by bidding throughout the life of an eBay auction is not a good strategy for a buyer although placing a strategic first bid, if you are concerned the item may be removed, if no other bids are made, makes very good sense. But you need to remember to look on other sites to see if there are copies available. Don't bid more on eBay than you can buy the item for elsewhere. Finally, don't get carried away by the appearance of fierce public bidding. It could be too good to be true.
All this said, eBay is an exceptional marketplace where great items and sometimes bargains are offered and snatched up. But beguiling tales are also told, the midway lights are always on, barkers and touts shout and whistle for your attention. So keep your hand on your wallet and your wits about you.