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April 2007: Rolling the eBay Dice

Extra Fine Points Index  ]

BY DON FLUCKINGER • I spy, with my jaundiced eye, a “SHEAFFER INK PEN” on eBay. Whatever the heck that is. The pen’s capped. The dark, fuzzy picture’s lit as if the pen resides in some dank cave. I think I know what it is, I think I’ve spotted another model I don’t have in my collection of Targas. One thing it definitely isn’t is a ballpoint, which the seller helpfully claims it is, answering a potential bidder’s question posted in the listing.

Only one or two other brave souls have bid on the pen, probably only because it was so cheap, and if they’re wrong, oh well, it’s not much dinero to risk.

When I saw the feedback, my first question was “What’s a stub?” Extra Fine Points

In building out the abovementioned Targa collection, I’ve come across what seem to be variations upon variations of pens. Fountain pens, rollerballs, ballpoints, pencils, slim models, original designs and “freshened up for the 1980s” updates that feature different trim then their 1970s counterparts. And many of these can bear one of several different imprints from around the globe, each with potential slight variations in design.

Sometimes, even knowledgeable Targa collectors I poll don’t necessarily have definitive answers to “what is this?” questions when something pops up on an auction site or somewhere else on the Web. I will say, however, they do a pretty good job of solving most “mysteries” I can’t solve by looking up the answers in a book myself or consulting favorite online references.

Which brings me to today’s topic, the mystery eBay pen: If us collectors can’t figure out what something is, why should we expect eBay sellers who aren’t fountain pen experts to put together a coherent, accurate description?

Most of the time, auction-listing errors are obvious. The picture says 1,000 words. If you’re experienced (read: have tossed enough $20 bills away making dumb eBay decisions), the description text holds little value unless you’re buying from a known expert. A seller’s feedback rating, return policy rules, and his or her photograph typically yield the information guiding you to bid high, bid low, or pass.

I’ve written a lot about eBay and its pitfalls in my other life as an antiques and sports collectibles writer. Some of the stories I’ve heard will either anger you or make you ill, depending on your constitution. Like college athletes who have their girlfriends “autograph” rookie cards that card companies certify as authentic — and then little kids pull them from packs after blowing their paper route money at the drug store, thinking they have something real. Or the grisly details (as of 2000) of the FBI’s Operation Bullpen, an ongoing investigation of shady dealers bilking an unsuspecting public for millions of dollars.

I acknowledge that eBay sellers run the gamut from honest, knowledgeable people all the way to hardcore scam artists. The in-between territory’s populated by the blissfully ignorant and the slightly less innocent “truth-benders” who lie by omission about pens they’re eBaying.

So, as an informed bidder who’s probably had more experience interviewing authorities, appraisers, experts, and eBay safe-trading folks than most of the millions of other people on eBay, how is it I find myself rolling the dice and bidding on a pen about which the seller obviously knows only sketchy details and appears to be as handy with a digital camera as Chance, my greyhound, is?

It’s simple: There are deals to be had. How can I be so sure? I was one of those ignorant sellers, once upon a stone age. Back in May 1999 — when Richard was still working for The Man, and he and I were still using crude implements (like letter-openers and paring knives) to repair pens for ourselves, and only ourselves — I had this great Vacumatic I just couldn’t get to fill or to write properly.

I’d bought it for short money, so I did what I often did back then: I hung it back up for sale on eBay, where I had originally bought it. Being the honest Joe I am, I explained how the damned thing wrote scratchy and probably needed some kind of repair. The auction made me a couple bucks, and didn’t think much of it until the feedback came in on June 1, 1999 (it’s still there in my permanent record, mocking me, eight years later):

“Nice pen. Exactly as described with the bonus of being a hard to find stub nib.”

As you can imagine, back then, when I saw that feedback my first question was “What’s a stub?” Once I Alta-Vista’d that (remember, this was before Google took over the world), my next thought was “Oh, maybe it actually did work?” And when I realized that I’d just sold an uncommon, eminently re-diaphragmable pen as broken … and in the process, somebody got a smoking-hot deal at the expense of my ignorance.

At that moment, my pockets started burning. I wanted the $50 more I could have gotten for that pen, had I not been so stupid. Here in 2007, I’m still chasing after it.

Along the way, I’ve gotten some great keepers for short money, rolling the dice on “auctions that might be good ones.” I’ve also gotten some nice pens off eBay that I didn’t particularly want, but could resell with a nicer picture and more intelligent description. Those often net me more dinero to plow back into the pen collection.

No doubt, bidding on these pens is a gamble. I sometimes get pieces of junk with fatal flaws some dolt who couldn’t focus his camera inadvertently covered up.

But hey, if it weren’t gambling, it wouldn’t be fun. This whole city out in Nevada’s built on that principle. The only difference while I’m pulling the lever on the eBay slot machine here at home is that I don’t usually get scantily clad waitresses bringing me drinks.

I’d never advise you to join me in this game of chance. In fact I’d discourage it. You’d be throwing away your money. Just let morons like me keep playing with fire. Speaking of which, I just popped in a $28.28 bid on that pen of unknown origin with the dank-cave picture. Wish me luck!

cover Further Reading: The Calligrapher’s Bible, by David Harris

Inspired by Pier’s work and want to make a go at calligraphy yourself? Try this indispensable volume, which offers 100 example alphabets. This spiral bound edition costs a bit more, but that laying-flat thing is totally worth it.

Freelance writer Don Fluckinger lives in Nashua, New Hampshire, and is the son-in-law of Richard Binder. His articles have been published in Antiques Roadshow Insider, The Boston Globe, and on the collectibles Web site. Please note: Any opinions stated in this column are Don’s alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Richard Binder or this Web site. Don Fluckinger
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