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What's Wrong With eBay?

eBay, the grand daddy of online auctions, is among the most popular and successful websites on the internet. It's a great place to buy, sell or hunt for just about anything and it's become a source of income, entertainment, and enjoyment for many hundreds of thousands of satisfied customers. The great majority of transactions are made in good faith between honest sellers and earnest buyers, but cracks have appeared in the iconic company's auction model.

Recent attempts to sell a human kidney and an unborn child on eBay are most likely hoaxes, but they spotlight the problem: NO ONE'S MINDING THE STORE. Sale postings are essentially automatic-- eBay staffers attend to technical operational details and rarely monitor the site's content as it goes public. Quality controls, human interventions, built-in safeguards, or any other filtering mechanisms are virtually nonexistent when it comes to preventing spurious sales from appearing online.

Anyone can attempt to sell anything on eBay in spite of the site's regulations. Unless bidders notify eBay authorities in time, these sales can and do progress to completion and no one's the wiser. If a violator gets caught, punishments are minimal-- nothing more severe than being permanently banned from the site.

Problems are particularly evident with higher priced art, antiques, and collectibles. Seasoned dealers and collectors know how to spot and avoid questionable pieces, but unsuspecting and inexperienced buyers who think that this is all fun and games and maybe even an occasional bargain thrown in are the ones who get victimized. eBay's online platform has unfortunately made selling questionable goods easier than ever.

Back in the old days before the internet, sellers had to appear in person alongside their merchandise. They sold by conventional means like offering to dealers, advertising in the classifieds, consigning to auctions, having house or yard sales, or setting up at flea markets. Regardless of the methods they chose, buyers almost always knew who they were, what they looked like, what their reputations were, and how to contact them.

Higher priced items rarely changed hands without first being inspected and evaluated by experienced professionals like dealers, collectors, appraisers, and auctioneers. Honest owners as well as forgers and thieves had to subject themselves and their goods to some level of face-to-face scrutiny. As a result, quality pieces were approved, inferior ones were vetted, and suspicious sellers were either reported to the authorities or tracked and monitored over time by members of the trade.

eBay has effectively removed these checks and balances from the buy/sell mix and created somewhat of an anarchy. No specialist examines items before they go up for sale. No auctioneer catalogues their defects. No seasoned collector evaluates their significance. No dealer asks where they came from. No shop owner notices sellers behaving in unusual or atypical manners.

eBay maintains only a minimal staff of art, antiques and collectibles experts. They offer few of the protections, guarantees, and assurances that dealers, auction houses, and appraisers traditionally provide for their clients. True, the company now owns Butterfield's, but they haven't quite figured out what to do with them. Their idea is to institute high quality online auctions, but before that happens, they need to do a heavy revamp of what already exists.

The problems:

--Sellers are basically anonymous. No experience, references, resumes, or past history checks are necessary.

--Anyone can call themselves a dealer. Anyone can say they have a gallery or a shop or have been buying, selling or collecting for years.

--Sellers do not have to support or qualify any subjective claims, judgments, statements, representations, embellishments, or conclusions that they make about their merchandise. eBay descriptions are peppered with words like rare, museum quality, fabulous, fantastic, incredible, and beautiful. At the time of this writing, well over 65,000 items for sale on their site were described as rare, some with opening bids as low as $2.00.

--Many descriptions contain inaccuracies. Most are due to seller inexperience; some appear to be more deliberate. For example, prints are called paintings, reproductions are called originals, authorship is attributed without sufficient proof, an item made in the mid 1990's was even described as "old and rare."

--Anyone can state that their asking price is a bargain. No concrete proof, examples of past sales records, or other forms of substantiation are necessary.

The consequences:

--An alarming number of inferior and improperly represented items, including a smattering of fakes and forgeries, are being offered for sale and inexperienced unsuspecting buyers are buying them.

Possible solutions:

--Require all items with reserves or opening bids of $500 or more to be evaluated and signed off on by experts.

--Require written proof of authenticity for all items with reserves or opening bids of over $500.

--Eliminate gushy language from all descriptions. A painting is a painting; a Beanie Baby is a Beanie Baby. Allow prospective buyers to arrive at their own subjective conclusions.

--Require documentation for all claims of rarity, scarcity, or other superlatives. These can include quotes from standard reference books (with appropriate bibliographic notations), appraisals by qualified experts or appraisers (with contact information and dates), opinions of acknowledged authorities (with contact information), or other forms of verifiable proof.

--All sellers who offer opinions, attributions or statements about the authorship of their goods must list their qualifications for doing so.

--Have a group of experts available, either by phone, online or offsite, to answer buyers' questions. If necessary, charge a modest fee for asking their opinions.

eBay needs antiques, collectibles and fine arts professionals to monitor and oversee their higher level sales. They are the people who have made and continue to make these businesses work. They are the ones who uphold tradition, provide structure, and maintain order as they've been doing for centuries.

Arbitrarily removing them from the eBay online business model, whether intended as a noble experiment, a cost-cutting measure or an inadvertent oversight, is not working. Inexperienced sellers cannot be expected to know what's good, what's bad, or how to accurately describe it. Inexperienced buyers are unable to make informed decisions and must be offered more in the way of protections than "caveat emptor." Online buying and selling is an incredible commercial advance and it's growing in leaps and bounds. By blending tradition with technology, maximum benefits can be assured to all who participate.

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Articles © Alan Bamberger 1999. All rights reserved.