Would you, should you buy art and collectibles on eBay?

Given that thousands of transactions are completed every day under the Collectibles and Art categories on eBay, the answer must be in the affirmative, or is it? The key is to weigh the risks and decide what's most important to you.

This article reviews the pros and cons of going to a consumer-to-consumer shopping site like eBay for art and collectibles. It addresses the main points you should consider before buying from online resellers, not situations where you buy directly from artists selling their own work on eBay.

Benefits of shopping online and on eBay

The benefits of buying online are clear, whether you're looking for collectibles or any type of goods.

  1. Convenience and accessibility – Shopping hours are 24/7 and all you need is Internet access.
  2. Few geographical constraints – Distances are no longer an obstacle, although international transactions are not always advantageous or practical. eBay supports different versions of its website in different countries.
  3. Constant inventory turnover – It is true that you can find almost anything on eBay, and new listings that interest you can pop up at any moment.
  4. Single-click comparison shopping – When searching for an item on eBay, you can selectively display and sort by a variety of criteria, including price, buying format, "free shipping only," etc.
  5. Minimum seller performance standards – eBay holds their sellers to a set of standards measured by customer feedback ratings. The numbers are less meaningful when a seller has received few feedbacks.
  6. Simplified return process – If an item you receive is not as described (which includes damaged on arrival, wrong item shipped, or does not work), find the transaction on your Purchase History page under My eBay and request a return. Unless you opt for a replacement or exchange, you should get a refund for the full purchase price and shipping cost. The seller is also responsible for return shipping costs, provided there is something wrong with the item received.
  7. eBay Money Back Guarantee – If the seller can't resolve a problem to your satisfaction, you may escalate it to eBay Customer Support. eBay will refund your purchase price and original shipping cost, but only if they rule in your favor. Go to the eBay website to learn more.
  8. PayPal Purchase Protection – This program is very similar to eBay's Buyer Protection. When you pay for an online purchase using PayPal, you get reimbursed if you open a dispute within the eligible period and PayPal agrees you have a legitimate complaint.
  9. You can get lucky – eBay auction-style listings present opportunities to buy things for less than what you're prepared to pay. Motivated sellers may also set fixed prices well below market. The odds of finding an authentic, known work of art by a great master are probably none, though, and works that are normally shown in fine art galleries rarely surface on eBay at a discount.
  10. Sellers are people, too – With enough exposure, you're bound to come across the entire spectrum of good, bad, and ugly sellers. When you find one who consistently delivers on their promises and will go the extra distance to keep you happy, stay with them.

The risks

The great majority of sellers want nothing more than to do honest business. As long as you ask the proper questions and apply common sense, the chance of losing money and getting nothing in return is fairly low. When complications develop, they're usually due to lack of knowledge of the sale item, varying interpretations of the seller's description, or disagreements regarding item condition. Problems can also occur in shipping. In a perfect world, both parties would be considerate of the other and come to an amicable solution every time. But then, reality sets in.

  1. Incorrect or misleading description – Many online sellers are candid about being unfamiliar with a particular item they have for sale. Others make misleading or untrue statements. For example:

  2. Pictures don't always tell the full story – Photos are helpful in showing an item's condition only to the extent the image quality and view angles will allow. Beyond that, you have to rely on your own knowledge and how up-front and competent the seller is at inspecting their merchandise.
  3. "Excellent" is a subjective term – Ask questions and do everything possible to make sure words and phrases like "good condition," "excellent," "mint" fit your definition and not somebody else's.
  4. Shipping damage – Mishaps can result from a combination of rough handling and poor packing. Unless they routinely work with auction houses and galleries, even professional shippers may not know how to pack art safely. For instance, the weight of Starlite Originals/Legends Mixed Media sculptures might belie how strong the metal is. In fact, such a piece is vulnerable to bending, cracking, and breaking when its weight or other forces are placed on parts not designed to withstand the pressure, as shown in the picture on the left, below. Another potential problem involves Swarovski crystal: the original packaging can be a confounding puzzle to some, and I've seen sellers jam a figurine into place only to have it break during shipping.

  5. Limited time to file a claim – You must request a return or report an item not received within the eBay Money Back Guarantee window, and preferably within the seller's return window. If necessary, ask eBay Customer Support to step in. Waiting too long before taking action may mean you have no claim.
  6. Buyer Protection is not a guarantee – You should generally feel pretty secure with eBay's Money Back Guarantee in the event you don't receive the item exactly as advertised. Unfortunately, the guarantee only applies if eBay agrees with you. A dispute that requires arbitration on the part of eBay will not necessarily resolve in your favor, no matter how clear-cut you think your case is.
  7. 100% may not equal perfection – You absolutely should review a member's feedback before making any purchase. However, numbers can lie, and past performance – good or bad – does not guarantee future results. eBay can remove a negative rating that a seller received if the accompanying comment from the buyer didn't follow published guidelines. In some instances, this means a seller can be let off the hook and preserve their 100% positive rating thanks to a technicality. On the flip side, a well-intentioned but inexperienced seller may bungle a transaction and be saddled with a very poor feedback percentage resulting from a single negative rating.
  8. Contentious sellers – Like any large community, there will always be a few bad apples in the barrel. This is true with buyers as well, but if you shop on eBay a number of times, you're likely to experience the best and worst sellers imaginable. While most transactions go without a hitch, horror stories range from sellers who are rude; refuse to listen and learn; to those who'll call you a liar and worse before they'll admit to a mistake.

  9. Beware of cons and scams – Some lessons are learned the hard way. I've been taken by a seller's stories of illness and hospitalization and let the case deadline pass me by. And in the search for bargains, keep in mind the old saying, "If it's too good to be true,..."

Doing it the old-fashioned way

For all the convenience and choices the Internet offers, nothing can beat the personal touch that a respected dealer will bring to your art or collectibles purchase. A reputable gallery or authorized retailer can provide:

  1. In-person preview of items – Some art objects should be previewed firsthand before purchase. If this is impractical, your dealer ought to send you all the information you need.
  2. Personal, expert service – Dealers have knowledge to share. They will cater to your likes and dislikes, possibly work with you on payment plans, offer perks to loyal customers. They also have access to documentation on published artists and their works.
  3. Assurance of quality – You can be confident you're getting what you paid for from a legitimate dealer. The pricier the object, the more established your seller needs to be. Because mistakes can happen with anyone, you should still ask for whatever documentation is available.
  4. Peace of mind – Assuming you're not buying from a fly-by-night operation, you have recourse if it is discovered later that a purchase isn't what it was thought to be. Packing, crating, and shipping are never a source of concern.
  5. A word of caution – Big-time scandals involving forgeries or dealer negligence have occurred. To blindly trust anyone with your money is to invite trouble, and there's a statute of limitations on how late a fraud claim or lawsuit can be filed. Moreover, intent to defraud is often difficult to prove in court.

Only you can decide

Collectors have numerous places where they can shop, from "conventional" stores with a physical inventory to estate sales, auctions, flea markets, online classified ads. An online marketplace like eBay requires you to pay for merchandise without personally examining it, and customer satisfaction is not 100% guaranteed. A collector has very little reason to shop under such conditions unless they answer "true" to at least one of these three factors:

  1. Product availability – What you are looking for is unique, sold out or retired, and is not readily found elsewhere.
  2. Discounted prices – You want to pay less than full retail. Businesses that carry overhead can't easily match prices with individual sellers and virtual stores.
  3. Your tolerance for risk and frustration – You're prepared and willing to face a few characters who are convinced if they don't set out to cheat you, that makes them a good seller. Some will question why a collector would care about an item's condition and flaunt their 100% feedback rating as "proof" they can't be wrong.

You have a better chance of getting what you want online if you set reasonable expectations and understand the risks. eBay's not like gambling, where people tend to lose most of the time. Nevertheless, you should know you will lose some of the time. If you can't afford a loss or don't like the idea of losing, don't take the risk.

If finding bargains is a high priority and you can deal with the frustrations and occasional loss and disappointment, eBay's the place.

The above text authored by manitouj.com. Copyright © 2013, revised December 2016

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