06 April 2001

"There is no calamity greater than lavish desires.
There is no greater guilt than discontentment.
And there is no greater disaster than greed."
      - Lao Tzu

Get 'em while they're hot! Be the first on your block to own one of these! Hurry, before it's too late!
I've been online recently, having a look around a popular auction site. I confess, I don't understand the attraction of online auctions--grainy, out of focus digital images notwithstanding--and I have a hard time figuring out why anyone wants to buy other peoples' old stuff. I decided I wanted to know more about this cultural phenomenon. I selected an item to observe over the course of a week--a box of old pens, just to see what might happen. The opening bid was $5.00.

The layout of the screen and the way the "closing" items--things in the last hour of bidding--are highlighted ensures a frenzy in the final moments, regardless of the material value of the offering. Day by day, as the box of pens climbed higher on the page, nearer to the final gavel, the bidding became more vigorous and more frequent, with the dollar amounts suddenly jumping from $5.00 to $20.00, to $50.00, each minute adding an additional $20.00 or more to the bid.

When the auction ended, and the item closed, the winning buyer agreed the box of miscellaneous old, broken pens was worth $240.00. The sale was "as is," as are most of the auctioned items.

I think most of what gets sold is of questionable value. It occurs to me that people are frequenting online auctions now, instead of taking Saturday and Sunday afternoons to frequent flea markets. Erstwhile bargain hunters scour the online site for "collectibles," ranging from porcelain pigs to samurai swords, in hopes of finding a treasure among other people's trash.

Not so long ago, the online auction was newsworthy because a painting a seller found in his garage was attracting international attention from serious art collectors. Bidding slowly accelerated until there was a fast stream of bids, with the amounts measuring in hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Everyone was thrilled. That is, thrilled, until the ruse was uncovered.

The seller put his painting up for auction with a purposely vague description of the item. He carefully picked his words, hoping to catch the eye of discerning buyers. He wanted the buyers to believe they were bidding on a bona fide work of modern art by a recently acclaimed artist. Interest mounted as the bidding began. The seller had help, too, in the form of a friend willing to use multiple login accounts as his "shill." For more than a week, every time somebody put in a bid, the shill logged on and outbid the legitimate buyer, until the dollar amount began to attract attention from others who were not as knowledgeable about contemporary art, but sensing something dramatic was happening, were willing to join the frenzy.

My guess is many of these people have the same mentality as the men who bankrupted themselves willingly in Holland, buying tulips at the height of the bulb frenzy several hundred years ago. Regardless, in the space of a few days, the price of the painting was up to nearly a quarter million dollars. As the auction drew toward its end, however, the auction site owners, suspicious of the activity and the unnaturally high dollar amounts, stepped in and investigated the seller and the bid activity.

The seller's little plot unraveled when the shill was uncovered. To make matters worse, the painting was identified as a crude forgery. The serious collectors were outraged. The seller and his cronies were banished forever from the site, and new policies and restrictions were immediately enacted to forestall any further fraud upon the online community.

Frankly, I was surprised by the uproar. After all, this is the Internet we're talking about. The wild and woolly Web, where it's every man for himself, and caveat emptor is the rule of the day. These people weren't being fooled by Sotheby's or Christie's, or any other reputable auction house--they were trading on a site originally designed to facilitate the buying and selling of Pez dispensers and Beanie Babies. Anyone hoping to find a cheap Serrault or Monet ought to know better than to search for one in a place full of Scooby Doo commemorative plates and Franklin Mint coin sets.

It's occurred to me that had the hucksters been a little brighter and a little less greedy than they were in laying out their con game, they might never have been caught at all. However, greed and impatience got the better of them, as it always seems to in matters of petty thievery, and the plan collapsed under the weight of the significant bidding.

Christie's and Sotheby's are safe for the time being, and the online auction rolls merrily on its way, with Capodimante figurines, boxes of broken pens, and commemorative coin sets making for a brisk, happy, and for the most part mindless, business model.

Meanwhile, we'd better hurry. Time's wasting, and things are going, going, gone!

Excuse me. I have to place my bid.


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