Good eye by Peggy Whiteneck

Discover Vintage America - FEBRUARY 2018

Internet auction: Not the whole market

It's a perennial question – and a perennial dilemma for dealers: In pricing our own inventory, how much weight should we give to online auction prices for antiques and collectibles?

I like to collect Rosenthal (German) porcelain animal figurines when I can find them at a reasonable price. I bought this model #1808 reclining Dachshund puppy by Rosenthal sculptor Fritz Heidenreich, along with a similar-sized and more commonly seen seated Dachshund model #1247 by sculptor Theodor Karner, in a private sale. Prices for sold models online for either model are all over the lot, from less than $100 to over $500. If I were to price either of these for resale, I'd want to run a "dollar cost average" on it where I throw out the single highest and lowest prices paid and then average the cost on whatever number of items I find between those two extremes in order to get a sense of fair market value. If I had to guess in the meantime, I'd say $125-$150 is about right for a shop range on this item, which would still "leave room in it" to make it attractive to a potential buyer.

Internet giants such as have decimated ground sales in some sectors, e.g. independent bookstores and small book publishers. But one of the reasons internet sales have not replaced ground businesses in antiques and collectibles is that our customers place a premium on the sensory experience of shopping: being able to see and touch actual objects. Buyers want to inspect the item prior to purchase, and they will notice the slight scratch or chip or wobble that may not even be visible to a seller who's not particularly familiar with the object or its category.

Buyers also want to see how the object is made and whether the materials and workmanship meet the buyer's quality standards. Internet auction photos and descriptions simply can't tell the serious collector enough about the object.

Another reason the antique shop and mall have not been – and will not be – rendered obsolete by online sales is that a minority but significant percentage of the trade's customers don't have online access. They may not be actual Luddites who reject technology on principal, but they may still not be comfortable enough with it to own a computer, tablet, or iPhone. Even if they have access to the internet, they may not be comfortable shopping online, especially given all the negative publicity around massive personal data breaches and identity theft linked to online transactions.

What should we make of online auction prices?

It's easy to look at online sales data and miss the multiple factors that affect any given sale: timing of the auction, how detailed and accurate the auction description is, quality of auction photos, and so on. Even spelling can affect whether an item sells for peanuts or real money.

Those who turn up their noses at the importance of learning to spell correctly take notice: If you don't know enough about your item to spell the maker or object name correctly, buyers who know what they're looking for and know how to spell it will never find your listing in an online search!

For online auctions, one of the gauges we might use in considering our own pricing strategy for the same or similar item is the number of bids a sold item attracted. If an item attracts, say, 33 bids, we might be tempted to conclude that this is a very desirable item and that the winning bid is a good measure of what the item might be worth for our pricing on the ground. But hold on! To parse the meaning of that volume of bidding, we have to click on the bid number to bring us to the list of bidders, where we might discover a bidding war in which 33 bids were distributed among only two or three serious bidders. In that case, the winning bid may not be as significant as might have appeared just from the number of bids.

On the other hand, if the 33-bid item attracted eight to ten bidders who wanted the item, that could be at last one indicator of desirability. "Buy It Now" listings on eBay, a recent addition to seller options that allow for direct sales unmediated by auction bidding, trend on the high side, with the asking price being little more than a fishing expedition. If the item sells, it means one buyer was willing to pay that price for it. But in many cases, the item doesn't sell at all at the asking price.

What all this means is that dealers should take online auction prices with a grain of salt when pricing their own inventory. Online auctions are a significant part of the market, but they are not the whole market.

Peggy Whiteneck is a writer, collector and dealer living in East Randolph, VT. If you would like to suggest a subject that she can address in her column, email her at