Rare Book Monthly

Articles - October - 2008 Issue

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: [1] the item is fabulous and can not be ignored; [2] the price is so low it simply attracts marginal bidders; [3] the description is exceptional and/or [4] 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.

Rare Book Monthly

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