Love and Loss Online

eeeee-Bay

Not you. You would never purchase an antique you couldn't hold in your hand, caress, observe in three dimensions. Even though your best friend and collecting buddy has been haranguing you for months to log on and sample the joys of eBay, you remain unconvinced. You could never buy anything that way. Never.

Then one day the boss sets you up with a fancy new computer. Fast. Big color screen.

Complete Internet access. So you start investigating. Amazon.com. CollectorsWorld.com. eBay.

The impact is immediate, stunning— every conceivable collectible from Louis Vuitton trunks to Steiff skunks, Amish quilts to circus stilts— a flea market in your office! The Pier Show at your desk! Brimfield at the click of a mouse!

Before you know it, you have acquired a screen name and a secret password and you're thinking about bidding. This wouldn't be so bad if you collected Beanie Babies or lunch boxes or cookbooks or gardening implements or, in fact, practically anything except what you do collect: 75-year-old mechanical wristwatches. And it's not like you have a bench and loupe and drawer full of crystals and mainsprings in your apartment: for someone willing to commit significant sums to this particular passion, you actually know laughably little about the insides of old watches. You're just mesmerized by their cute faces.

Now, every morning when you get in to work, before you listen to voice mail or read your e-mail, you log on to eBay, starting the day with "Jewelry, Gemstones: Watches." You've set up bookmarks that read "Items matching +rolex @0 9k 20 30 cushion" and "Items matching @0 1920 20s 20's" and you check them 50 times a day. Soon you are speaking the mysterious language of eBay: "reserve not met," "negative feedback," "my eBay," "the eBay community." You love reading negative feedback and noodling around checking the buying and selling habits of people in Kuala Lumpur and Omaha, Nebraska.

Inevitably, you begin bidding. You find yourself in the office at 3 a.m. because eBay is on Pacific time and the item you want is up at 2:59 a.m. New York time and you don't have Internet access at home (in fact you have a Victrola and a rotary phone and a black-and-white television) and none of your friends want to be bothered with your stupid watch hobby at 3 a.m.

Your efforts do not bear fruit. "Rare Movado 18k Case 15k Bracelet Circa 1920 In Box" fails to reach its reserve; "Exquisite Vintage Woman's Cartier 1910-20" zooms rapidly beyond your pocketbook; "14k Gold Ladies Omega c.1930's A Beauty!" is snatched from your grasp at the last minute by a sniper.

But finally, when you least expect it, victory is within reach: a flimsy ladies' Rolex of the type you've been admiring in the window of Time Will Tell on Madison Avenue for years is up with no reserve. You bid some piddling amount as a joke, you're the high bidder, the item is yours!

Or so you think. Alas, such joy as you feel is heartbreakingly transient: when you try to contact the seller to pick up your treasure, he e-mails you an incoherent, semiliterate message, the gist of which is he won't be selling you a Rolex after all, he's "canceled the auction"— a completely ridiculous, illegal eBay practice, in violation, as far as you can make out, of the arcane laws of the eBay community.

You complain to eBay, but in essence you are complaining to a machine. No human ever responds.

You should be daunted, but you're not. Formerly one of the most suspicious, cynical people in the universe, you are now happy to contemplate sending a certified check for hundreds of dollars to a post office box in New Zealand. If the item is appealing enough, you're even willing to overlook a couple of negative feedbacks.

One Sunday (your office is closed), you visit your old pals, the dealers at 26th Street, anxious to tell them about your new enthusiasm. "I'm bidding on eBay now! Lots of old Rolexes for sale on eBay!!" you beam. "Oh yeah?" they sniff. "Well, some of those guys just have someone write Rolex on the dial! How d'ya know the inside is signed? How d'ya know it's the original case? Why, some of those guys set a really high reserve, then contact the high bidder after the auction to avoid paying the eBay commissions! Sometimes they don't send you the same item they had up for auction! I've heard sometimes they don't send anything at all! Or they get a shill to bid against you! Or they register with a passel of phony passwords and bid against themselves!"

And then one day, lightning strikes again: your bid topples the reserve, no one sneaks in and outbids you at the last minute, and a silver watch from the 1920s is yours. Its online photo shows numerals adorably puffy and cartoonish and deco; its once-luminous hands bear significant traces of lime-green paint; on its back is the still-crisp geometric monogram of the sport who once wore it. "A treasure of the Jazz Age! Try finding another one of these!" the description crows.

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