Rare Book Monthly

Articles - February - 2008 Issue

An Unhappy Story: a deal gone bad

Prob.1

The book couldn't be opened flat


By Bruce McKinney

Recently I purchased on eBay a copy of Ruttenber's History of Orange County [New York], the 1875 edition, for $70 plus shipping. Ruttenber was an exceptional man, a printer, writer and historian who combined his personal interests and business to create a lasting printed legacy of Hudson Valley history. I didn't have a copy and saw, as interesting, the opportunity to purchase a reasonably good one for around $75. On Abe other copies are offered for about $200 but this is a book that is common enough to periodically show up on eBay. In late December it did.

I have eBay experience. In fact, I'm a regular buyer. I've purchased more than 300 items in my current account and two hundred more in a previous. I know from experience that Ebay is not a perfect marketplace but nevertheless is very good, even exciting, and I follow their auctions throughout the year. Again, from experience I know that every lot isn't going to be as expected. For me, about 85% turn out to be as good and in some cases much better than described. For a portion of the other 15% I bear some responsibility. I on occasion fail to notice a material disclaimer. You have to read the listings carefully and I haven't always done so, in part because I'm busy and the prices are often low. If a material fact is stated and I miss it it's my responsibility. If the fact is present but difficult to find [i.e. hidden] I'll remember the seller and be inclined not to bid again. Once-in-a-while a seller fails to disclose material defects. When this happens I'm inclined to return the material and such was the case recently with the Ruttenber's History of Orange that I bought, with a single bid, at the $70 asking price just as the auction was closing.

When books, more than with pamphlets and ephemera, are posted for sale the risk of problems and the possibility of undisclosed faults increases. The material is simply more complex. Many sellers protect themselves and their reputations by describing uncertain material as "poor," "needs to be carefully evaluated," or "sold not subject to return." Every seller does it differently but most do it. Many provide images of faults.

What's missing is of course more difficult to know. Most sellers endeavor to provide accurate description but when an item arrives and it's quite different than expected, many many sellers simply say "send it back." They accept returns without explanation or complaint. I rarely return items however. If it's my error it's my responsibility. I rely on the AED, frequently ask questions and am rarely sorry to win. Net net, I understand the process.

So when I recently encountered Rutterber's 1875 History of Orange on eBay I knew the book, and saw several indications the seller knew his business. By his name I saw he was experienced with more than 6,000 feed backs and a 99.6% rating. And the description, and image, was plausible.

"From 1875, a very rare first edition, History of the County of Orange, with a history of the Town and City of Newburgh: General, Analytical and Biographical. By E. M. Ruttenber, published in Newburgh, New York, printed by E. M. Ruttenber & Son, Printers, 1875. With dozens of full page prints and maps, including one showing the location of Indian tribes in the region, Minnisinks, Waoranecks, Warranawonkongs, Papagoncks, Tappans. 425, 9x6 inches. Bound with the original purple cloth boards, spine replaced with black cloth.

Quite rare, only a handful of copies available, and ALL three we have seen are being offered at $200 and up. This copy shows wear, but then they all do. This one has an interesting penciled inscription, John S. Clark, 558 La Salle Av. Chicago. Samuel Clark, page 295, my grandfather.

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