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The Problem With On-Line Auctions

Collectors of anything look for whatever they collect in a vast array of places. Back in the pre-internet days it was flea markets, garage sales, antique shows, live auctions, collectors conventions and the like. Collecting was much more time intensive, sometimes expensive and usually hard work. I've talked to many collectors who made the treks from coast to coast in search of the stuff of which their collections were made and they reflect on those times with great joy and satisfaction. The inevitable rewards of all the effort is what filled their sometimes massive collections with cool things, including some very rare and valuable planes and other tools.

Enter the internet. First, just simple communications between collectors and dealers which made it just a bit easier to find some of the treasures many were after. Building cross country relationships with like minded folks made trading one item for another much easier than traveling to the venue. Time and money saved was certainly an important aspect of trading in those days but as one might expect, the personal relationships were lost and consequently trust between folks began to deteriorate, especially when a buyer was taken advantage of by an unscrupulous and anonymous seller. One might say too that the excitement of the find was lost just because the finder never held the piece in hand before forking over the sometimes hundreds or even thousands of dollars. A practice that used to take place face to face.

EBay saves the day. As most who used the service in the beginning found, it was a little more reliable than the anonymity that soured many transactions. Some control on seller behavior and integrity was instituted and "Buyer Protection" became a standard practice. Later sellers got some modicum of protection from crooked buyers too and life for the collector became more predictable and a bit easier. Now you could actually see what you were bidding on, ask questions and even return items that were not as described. PayPal, (then owned and operated by eBay) made it very simple to transfer the cash that here to for had to be through a bank transaction or check.

EBay also made hard to find items much easier to find. Items from the east were now available in the west, north, south and even the world. The collecting business met the revolution with huge changes in the market and business structure. Dealers in all sorts of otherwise obscure items could actually almost make a living from working at home, buying, selling, trading, all those things that used to be done "in the field" so to speak. It was, to say the least, a boon to those of us who live in the part of the country which only developed in the past 150 years vs. 350 years east of the Mississippi River. We now had something we never had before, instant access without presence. Prices however could suffer the consequences of over supply or high demand. Fluctuating prices from one sale to the next made it much more difficult to determine the true value of an item.

On-line Auctions. So what inevitably became the next logical step? Of course, the live floor auction sites such as Auction Zip, Proxi-Bid and Missouri High Bid Portal, just to name a few. Put a live feed auction on line and get the internet attendees to bid while the action is gong on real time. The real excitement of a live auction as you sit at your computer. You get a picture or two, a one line description and the perceived ability to ask questions, which is kind of pointless, I discovered, since they don't usually answer emails or return phone calls. Pre bidding was allowed by proxy but of course the live auction was where the action was.

Recently, in one well advertised on-line auction in the lower Midwest, I entered a proxy bid on a clearly wanting type 1 Bedrock No 4 1/2 C based on photos and a more detailed description than one might normally see. I bid accordingly low expecting to lose to a floor bidder. As expected, I received an email post auction, indicating that I'd lost. Several days later another email arrived with an attached invoice for my maximum bid, plus one incremental bid of $10, plus $15 internet bidding fee, plus 15 percent hammer fee, plus shipping. I knew about the possibility of the single incremental up bid, says so right in the policy statement, the internet bidding fee was expected as well as the shipping. I paid more than I wanted but It was a decent investment. Needing some parts that I purchased after the news of victory, I was into it at about $150, Not bad for a restoration project that would end up in my collection.

For what happened over the next couple of days I take full responsibility for being something of a dumbass for using these services. But I do expect some reasonable customer service when things go awry. The item arrived, actually before my check did to the auction house, a few days later. The description was, in my opinion a bit shy of actual condition and pitting was severe on one side. Not a collectible example for me so I thought it would make an excellent user after some cosmetic touch up. Let the lapping begin. Sadly, imagine my chagrin when on the heavily pitted side, I also discovered a tight fracture. Not what you want to see on a plane that you plan to sell. Certainly not a fatal injury by any means. Most folks wouldn't even have seen it...but I did. Now, I have a plane worth about a fourth of what I paid, plus the parts.

With little hope of success, I contacted the auctioneer who is also the business owner and explained what had happened with no mention of a resolution, only as an informational notice. My hope against hope was that he'd recognize the problem and offer some minimal customer service solution. I didn't want my money back nor did I expect that he'd take a return. But something, right? What follows is the email exchange, names and addresses removed:

"Hello Mxxx Got the plane today. It landed OK but I have a question as I'm not very experienced with on line auctions. I unpacked and realized that the pitting on the one side was more extensive than I realized. It was going to be a restoration so I usually try to keep them as close to original as I can. The extent of the pits caused me to reevaluate my original thought. So I decided that since I'd already ordered a new lever cap and knob I'd just go ahead and make it a user and get it to someone who would indeed use it. I love 4 1/2 size and you can't beat a Bedrock. While I was lapping the pitted side I noticed a very tight hairline crack on the side leading from the front of the cheek down and across the side. Clearly not something that one would have noticed in as found condition, at least not without a glass. Anyway, after getting over my disappointment I had to further decide at this point what I should do. I went ahead and finished lapping the bottom > and sides and currently have it prepared for cleaning. The crack lessens it real value as a user by a lot. Considering my high bid was for an intact usable plane and it actually went higher than that, I paid a premium for it. I recognize that bidding blind is a risk but given that the description indicated an undamaged plane missing only the items listed I would not have bid at all if the crack had been visible and described. The cost of the plane, the replacement lever cap and the knob puts me into it at around $140-150. I doubt I'll recover the cost invested on a resale even If I spend a couple hours getting it into usable condition. So my question is, given my lack and your much greater degree of experience, if you were me, what would_ you_ do? I’ve never had this happen to me before so I’m honestly unsure of my options. I’d appreciate your insight. I guess I’m one of those “pains in the ass” you mentioned earlier. Thanks Mark Nickel"

"Mark, In live auction settings, I've had people bring things they bought to me that they said they didn't see during the preview or something was different from my description. In nearly every case, I just have the auctioneer resell it after announcing to the room bidders what the buyer claimed was the reason he didn't want it after winning the bid. For absentee bidders, if they contact me when they first get something, I will accept a return and provide a refund less shipping. In this case, however, you assumed full ownership when you began working on the plane. Had you simply contacted me when you first got it and said you got it and the rust or pitting was more severe than the photos indicated or just that you didn't think it was going to work out, I would have gladly taken it back and refunded your purchase price less shipping. I'm not unsympathetic, I just do not see myself responsible for an item once someone else accepts it and begins working on it.

Best Regards,



StartFragmentThanks for the quick response. I understand. My issue was not with the rust/pitting. It was with the crack, if that makes any difference. I can deal with pitting but the crack wasn't visible until the pitting was partially removed. Kind of like paying a premium for a restorable, all original 57 Chevy that needs a tune up and discovering after beginning to clean up the engine that it has a cracked block. Guess it's just bad luck and I'll chalk it up to that. I appreciate your candor and I've learned a very valuable lesson about absentee bidding and live auctions. Mark" Consequently, I learned a couple of things. Not all business people have a sense of customer service. Not all business owners know much about customer service nor do they wish to. In a previous email, this auctioneer told me that his wife was driving the internet auction portion of the business as he found it to be a "...pain in the ass." (as referenced in my first email to him) Clearly his business model did not include such "high falootin techno crap" and folks like me was the reason why. He did not understand that such technology probably is what was keeping his business going. You can surely "lead a horse to water..."as the saying goes. I also learned that you can't expect more than what you see in one or two photos and one line description. As this auctioneer pointed out, he is not responsible for stuff he doesn't know about even though if he did know about it the item would have 1/4th the value and probably get no bids. Regarding the "Had you simply contacted me when you first got it and said you got it and the rust or pitting was more severe than the photos indicated or just that you didn't think it was going to work out, I would have gladly taken it back and refunded your purchase price less shipping. The damage was discovered only after the work began so it would have remained hidden until someone tried to clean up the pitting. Hidden damage like diseases sometimes are discovered while looking for something else.

Assuming that you, (the reader) has some interest in tools and buying them at auction, I will say that I have indeed had positive experiences at the more main stream tool auctions, whose names you are likely familiar with: Martin J. Donnelly, Fine Tool Journal/Brown Tool Auction. These auctioneers have with me, always been "up front" about their items, have always responded to email inquiries and send additional photos and answers to questions you might have about items. Plus, maybe more importantly, they back the items they sell and staunchly protect their reputation for customer service.

So, what's the moral of this story? Well for me it was to stay away from any on line auction house that uses internet sales as a secondary way to get people to bid on stuff sight unseen hoping to up the bids from the potential floor sales. Don't rely on the auctioneer's photos or description to accurately portray the item. If you think two photos and a one line description provide enough information, this primer should tell you otherwise. Use only reputable established auction houses that know what they are selling and back their sales as those mentioned above. Finally, the expectation of good customer service is not shared universally. Ya gotta be careful with whom you deal with because it really is a BIDDER BEWARE world in the on line auction business.

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