Before the era of the World Wide Web, author and antiques collector David Maloney had to search far and wide to find a 1950s cut-crystal Val St. Lambert pitcher. No one in his home town of Frederick, Md., carries fancy glassware, he says, "and I would spend days driving around to yard sales and little shops." Recently, though, Maloney logged on to the Net and in only 15 seconds, found a store in Pennsylvania that carries 40 styles of his coveted crystal.
Whether you collect glassware, home-run baseballs, or Ming vases, you no longer need to travel to far-flung antiques fairs or pore over trade magazines to add to your trove. The world of collectibles is expanding onto the Web at a geometric rate, bringing unprecedented efficiency and convenience to a fragmented market. The explosion of online collecting and the success of the biggest auction site, eBay, prompted Guernsey's Auction House to open the bidding for Mark McGwire's 70th home run baseball to online buyers as well as those in the salesroom (it went for $3 million, to an anonymous phone bidder). And Sotheby's plans to set up shop on the Net for goods under $5,000 (BW--Feb. 1).
It's easy to see why the Web has such appeal. Buyers can target obscure items with a few keystrokes, and sellers can reach a much larger, more varied market. Of course, online buyers can't kick the tires or size up dealers face to face. But so far, fraud is rare, and preventive measures are increasing.
Although you can find antique armoires and vintage cars, dealers say the Net is best suited to smaller items, such as books, coins, stamps, buttons, and textiles that can be easily scanned for viewing and shipped by mail. There are three basic ways to go about collecting online, says Maloney, author of Maloney's Antiques and Collectibles Resource Directory (Antique Trader Publications, $28.95). You can seek out specialty boutiques, such as Auntie-Dot-Com (www.auntie.com) for leads on dolls; go to auction houses such as Auction Universe; or visit virtual malls such as Buy Collectibles.com (table).
Prices aren't necessarily cheaper on the Web, but it's much easier to compare them, and most sites don't charge a buyer's commission. To purchase an early edition of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, for example, use a specialty search engine, such as www.bibliofind.com, to view descriptions of dealers' inventories. The site will provide details on the condition, publisher, and price of the book. Most editions of Tom Sawyer published in the 20th century sell for about $10. But a first British edition from 1898 lists for $350.
Since the Net has opened up a wider market, items that probably wouldn't sell at a local antiques show can find an appropriate home. Rick Brown, president of Newspaper Collectors Society of America (www.historybuff.com), holds six annual online auctions for "ephemera," as old papers are called. He recently sold some 19th century receipts from a drugstore in Canton, Me., to Cantonites setting up a historical society. "These people wouldn't normally have found us because they weren't ephemera collectors," he says. Likewise, a 1903 bicycle-parts catalog from France probably would have languished in a U.S. antiques show, but French enthusiasts snapped it up online for $28.
Indeed, the Net's wide geographical reach can help you find bargains. "American art in Germany sells for a lot less than in New York, and British silver is cheaper in France," says James Corsellis, CEO of Interactive Collector, a London-based site where established auction houses do business. The Internet is also opening once-exclusive worlds to new shoppers. Interactive Collector provides access to about 150 auction houses and 5,000 catalogs for free. "A collector would spend $75,000 to $100,000 a year to get all our catalogs in the mail," says Corsellis. "People who come on the site can see exactly what pieces cost, and that art doesn't have to be that expensive."
Still, virtual collecting has drawbacks. Buyers can't examine objects for flaws or trademarks. Many knowledgeable old-time dealers aren't computer literate, while some collectors prefer the thrill of hunting in out-of-the-way junk shops. "The average person still wants to see and feel the antiques," says Terry Kovel, author of Kovel's Antiques & Collectibles Price List (Crown Publishing Group, $14.95). "An awful lot of antiques purchases are emotional--because someone walks into a store and sees an object they had as a kid."
LITTLE FRAUD. A more serious concern, perhaps, is the security risk of buying online when you don't know who's getting your cash or credit-card number. Ephemera collector Brown lost $400 on eBay when a piece of United Press International wire-service copy recounting President Kennedy's assassination proved to be a photocopy. He says eBay advised him to post negative comments about the seller, who did not return his E-mails.
Site managers attempt to protect buyers from this sort of electronic highway robbery. Online malls police the "store" owners, who are responsible for the goods they sell. Interactive Collector tries to assure consumer confidence by dealing exclusively with well-established auctioneers, such as Phillips in London and Blomqvist in Oslo. The site also requires bidders to identify themselves by credit card to avoid "shilling," when vendors employ friends or other confederates using the owner's account number to bid up prices on their goods.
eBay is constantly updating security, says Steve Westly, vice-president for marketing and business development. The company recently said it will provide $200 in free insurance per transaction to cover problems on smaller items. It recommends that people set aside payment in escrow for larger goods until they're delivered.
Fraud victims have little recourse after a sale if they can't reach the dealer except to fight purchases through credit-card companies or alert postal inspectors if transactions were done by U.S. mail. So you should take precautions before you buy. The best offense is knowing a lot about what you want, says Ellen Schroy, editor of Warman's Antiques And Their Prices (Krause Publishing; $10.95). "If you find a piece of Depression glass in a color that it wasn't usually made in, you have to determine if it's really rare or a reproduction."
Maloney advises people to join collectors' groups in their communities and online for camaraderie and safety. Buyers can get advice about dealers or items of interest. When possible, view the object in person or at least talk to the dealer by phone before buying. Ask detailed questions about condition. Work out shipping costs beforehand, and don't buy if the dealer doesn't have a reasonable return policy.
While the security risks of online collecting grab headlines, Kovel says fraud has been negligible. Collectors do take gambles, but for many happy hunters, the increased selection and convenience of shopping the Web is far outweighing its dangers.