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Asked to sum up eBay in one sentence, a longtime dealer pal of mine deadpans, "Barnum was right."
To test his theory -- that the eBay community is made up of a bunch of suckers who'll bid on anything -- I recently decided to auction off a slew of gag gifts, 99-cent-store detritus, promotional slag and other junk that had been piling up in my office for years.
Among other items to go up on my admittedly less-than-scientific test auctions were a Martin Luther King Jr. poseable action figure, a Florence Henderson banana tree, a zippered coconut containing a George of the Jungle tee shirt and a plastic football shaped like the head of Libyan madman Moammar Khadafy.
And, just to see whether anyone was astute enough to pick out the one real treasure, I also tossed in a 38-year-old ceramic Wilma Flintstone ashtray, a relic from the show's first season that I paid $25 for 10 years ago.
Two weeks ago, a technically inclined cohort and I spent about an hour entering data on the 10 items. Most of that time, we dreamed up catchy header titles that would draw maximum hits on eBay's search engine. Ergo, the arcanely titled Florence Henderson's Banana Tree became BRADY BUNCH MOM BANANA TREE, with accompanying descriptional copy aimed at deep-pocketed Brady heads ("Who needs Alice when Flo's around?").
That was on a Thursday, during which I risked carpal tunnel syndrome, obsessively logging on every few minutes to check the auctions' progress.
Although it was far too early in the day to draw any conclusions, it became clear that product endorsements by second-tier Hollywood actors were a drug on the market -- no bids so far on either the George Hamilton's Fast Tan or Robert Urich's Men's Health Care System.
Traffic on merchandise tied to syndicated sitcoms was considerably brisker. A Saved by the Bell body gel/shampoo combo (fragrance: Zack Berry) was drawing lots of action, and the banana tree immediately drew a hefty bid from one "marcia-brady."
When I got up the next morning, the first thing I did was log on. Or rather, I tried to -- something I'd continue to do all day long with no success.
It was the second story on CNN. For the second time this summer, eBay had crashed, leaving customers high and dry -- and sending eBay stock plummeting.
During the downtime, I compared notes with my ever-widening circle of eBay contacts. (It turns out that a lot of people have been logging on to the eBay site for months; I was the last to know.) Several veteran traders asked whether I'd had a confederate make shill bids yet, an eBay taboo practice that supposedly drives up prices. "Everyone does it," I heard more than once.
For scientific reasons, I opted to play by the rules and let free enterprise run its true course. In hindsight, however, phony bids might not have been a bad idea.
When eBay was finally up and running later that day, I was disappointed to discover how sluggish bidding had been. Clearly, my trove didn't include the pop culture equivalent of that celebrated $41,000 pickle jar. And with the exception of the Flintstones ashtray, the banana tree, the Saved by the Bell toiletries and a couple of other items, none of the bids even approached the bargain-basement price tag on that Florida kid's manhood.
When the auctions ended five days later, I'd amassed a grand total of $92.50, minus eBay's cut of $13.11. Although the buyers pay for postage, I'll still have to buy shipping materials, pack everything up and haul it to the post office. And that doesn't include all the time spent e-mailing back and forth before the first check rolls in.
Still, nobody can say eBay isn't educational. I learned, for instance, that "marcia-brady" is really a guy named Jason. And that given the choice, eBayers would rather smell like the protagonist of Saved by the Bell than look like George Hamilton.
But my most important discovery? That my short-lived fascination with online auctions like eBay is going . . . going . . . gone.