Some Virtues and Vicissitudes of Internet Auctions

Or Confessions of An Easy Mark

by Richard L. Howey, Wyoming, USA

In the March 2006 issue of MICSCAPE, Paul James wrote a very helpful essay, titled “Buying at eBay”, for those in search of bargains, microscope and lab supplies and hard-to-find items. EBAY has become the major internet site for such materials and, at present, no one is successfully competing with them in these areas. Occasionally LAB-X has scientific instruments and supplies of interest to amateurs, but their offerings are much more limited. They do offer the very nice service of allowing you to place a Want Ad at no cost. If you are looking for items which don’t show up elsewhere, this opportunity may provide you with some help. Over the years I have found 3 microscope accessories by using this service.

However, if you’re looking for prepared slides, sea urchins, beetles, butterflies, or mineral specimens, EBAY remains the place to go; it’s rather like the ultimate flea market and auction combined. The “Buy It Now” option offers you immediate gratification of your lust to possess and very often the difference between the starting price and the “buy” price is insignificant. However, for those with a competitive gambling spirit or those possessed of an extreme predilection toward parsimony, the “Buy It Now” option may take the fun out of the game. Watching EBAY results yields a remarkable number of insights about human character and behavior.

A browsing excursion on EBAY can quickly give you a sense of the incredible amount of junk which some human beings make in order to sell to other human beings with appallingly bad taste. Unfortunately, those who make this stuff are usually very poor or have substantial amounts of money, but are greedy for more. If you don’t believe me just type in “kitsch” on EBAY and you will likely find lava lamps, sea urchin night lights, Elvis paintings on black velvet and numerous other indescribable horrors. If this doesn’t sate your appetite for the celebration of bad taste, then type “kitsch” into Google.

In the areas that we are interested in as amateur natural historians and microscopists other kinds of intriguing patterns emerge both about others and ourselves. I have an interest in both vintage and antique prepared microscope slides. Vintage, at least among sellers, generally means anything from 40 to 80 plus years old. One needs to remember that even with vintage wines, some of them are quite ordinary and just happen to be old and overpriced. After the Second World War, Japan produced large quantities of cheap prepared microscope slides sold in cardboard boxes, usually in sets of 10 or 12 slides. Sears sold a lot of these, mostly marketed with toy microscopes. The brands “Perfect” and “Milben” were common ones for these boxes. One can now find these on EBAY as “vintage” slides. They were clearly geared for the adolescent, secondary school market. They were almost always of low quality and of dubious value in producing any scientific sparks among young people. Combine a poor quality slide with a poor quality microscope and you don’t get a recipe for enrapturing millions of students to pursue careers in the sciences.

Almost every “basic” slide set, even today, includes a little bit of paper with the letter “e” typed on it. Why? Well, one can learn things about the fibers in paper, it’s ability to absorb ink, and its peculiar appearance when magnified. Just the thing to rivet the attention of any teenager. Why an English “e”? Why not a Greek beta or a Russian delta or a Chinese ideogram? The answer is quite clear. At the time that these slides were made, the United States, Great Britain, and those European countries in which most scientists learned English (and often several other languages) were the dominant forces in scientific research and technological innovation and that has remained largely true until recently. The first challenge to the English-speaking hegemony in science and technology came from Japan. Initially many of their products were dismissed as mere curiosities and/or inferior copies and with some justification. Today, however, they produce some of the finest scientific, optical, and electronic equipment in the world, not to mention entertainment systems and automobiles. This productivity, fueled by a large, skilled labor force and an oppressive work ethic, has gradually spread to South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, India, and China. These countries contain over half of the world’s population. When Western capitalists realized the enormous potentials of the Asian markets and their potential threat as competitors, they lost their contempt and xenophobia and there may even be a few CEOs who tried to learn a bit of Japanese or Chinese or Hindi. I would have no hesitation about buying a major research microscope from Nikon, Olympus, or Hitachi, if I could afford it. However, at this point, I have serious reservations about buying a Chinese or Indian instrument. Nonetheless, in a decade or so, these countries will be producing first class instruments. Already China is manufacturing microscope components for the “Big Name” optical companies of Japan, Germany, and the United States!

The United States is losing its creative and productive edge in significant part to the ultraconservative politicians who are dominated by power, greed stupidity, anti-intellectualism, and indifference–a lethal combination. As Harlan Ellison, the distinguished science fiction writer, once shrewdly observed: “The two most common elements in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity.” End of tirade (for the moment).

Those slides made in occupied Japan have little merit for the serious amateur microscopist and even their historical and cultural value is very limited, because they were produced in such large numbers. Today on EBAY, one can buy a basic set of 200 slides at a “Buy It Now” price of about $90 plus $15 to $20 shipping. These are, of course, mass produced by cheap labor in China. In general, these slides are good; they are by no means exceptional, but they are quite serviceable for the beginning amateur or for middle school or high school students whose interests in biology are generally limited to just a few parts of human anatomy. These slides, although of restricted scope in terms of subject matter, are nonetheless a bargain at only slightly more than 50 cents each. More specialized slide sets also appear; for example, there was a recent listing of “high quality” (the seller’s description) parasitology slides and, as I recall it was a set of 34 slides for about $200. This is approaching $6 a slide, but the making of good parasitology slides involves special materials, techniques, and therefore some additional costs. Modern scientific supply houses and specialists, who sometimes sell on EBAY, offer some exceptionally fine slides at reasonable, but not bargain prices.

If you are looking for bargains on EBAY, the old admonition certainly holds–Caveat emptor! For the moment, let’s stick to slides to discuss some potential problems. I admit to having a certain fascination for bargains, vintage slides, and antique slides, especially the elegant Victorian ones that were superbly crafted. I can’t afford to buy many truly fine slides and am usually quickly outbid on the really elegant items. However, hope springs eternal, and I persist and occasionally am rewarded for my stubbornness. More often, I win “vintage” rejects. Recently, I was bidding on a mixed set of vintage slides from a small Midwestern college which had closed down. It was a lot of 110 slides from 5 or 6 different sources and they dated from 1896 to the 1950s. Over the years, I have learned to be realistic in my expectations regarding internet auction purchases. I paid less than a dollar a slide and estimated that about 25 of them would be in reasonable condition and contain specimens of interest. I was wrong; 45 of them are of real interest to me and so I ended up paying less than 2 dollars per slide for those I wanted and that were in good condition–not a bad price at all. As for the other 65 slides–well, if you want to buy some really bad slides at a very cheap price, let me know.

This lot of slides is instructive in several respects about problems one can run into with such purchases.

1) Two slides were broken.

2) Eight slides had broken or smashed cover glasses. In a couple of cases this was rather annoying as those slides had interesting specimens on them, but they were hardly worth an attempt to salvage them.

3) Slides from one biological supply house, long since out of business–and perhaps with good reason, were all heavily clouded so as to completely ruin the specimens and suggesting they had not been properly dehydrated before mounting.

4) With older slides in which the mounting medium was Canada Balsam, a certain amount of yellowing is to be expected; extensive “crazing” (cracking) of the mountant is not. This can be the result of improper storage, especially prolonged exposure to excess heat. This is not an uncommon condition in slides which, like these, are from 50 to 100 years old. There is one dated slide which reads 1896, but almost all of the remaining ones are 50 to 60 years old.

5) Some of the slides are human histological preparations from a small medical school–long defunct, I hope. As I have stated before, I work almost exclusively with invertebrates, occasionally with fish, amphibians, and reptiles, very rarely with any mammalian material with the exception of bones, horns, and hair, and virtually never with anything from that most repellent and disgusting of all animals–human beings, with the exception of the epithelial cheek cells. In case you don’t already know this, these cells are marvelous for testing a microscope for resolution and contrast and the great thing is that you always have them with you and you don’t have to drag a bunch of slides down to your neighborhood microscope store when considering a new purchase. All you need is a slide, a cover glass, and a toothpick to scrape the inside of your cheek and you have an excellent test slide.

The gist of this is, as you can gather, that I don’t have much interest in human histological preparations. Give me a good botanical section any day. The human histological slides in this lot were mostly very amateurish and I hope Mr. Howard who made them went on to become a CPA and not a surgeon. (Remember that even if your personal physician graduated from Harvard Medical School, there is the chance that he or she was in the bottom half of the class or even at the very bottom.) I must admit, however, that there were also a few histological sections which were quite competently prepared and mounted. But, you shouldn’t trust my opinion, since I can’t tell an Islet of Langerhans from the Isle of Wight.

6) In the case of this lot of slides, the seller asserted that the majority of them were in good condition. From reading his advertisement, it seems that he made an honest attempt to describe the contents objectively. Clearly, however, he did not generally deal in microscope slides, so the basis for making that claim is dubious.

7) I strongly suspect that this dealer doesn’t have a microscope, but if he did he certainly didn’t look at 100 slides or he would never have said that the majority were in good condition. Nonetheless, I am not disappointed in this particular group of slides, since there were enough good ones to justify the purchase. Sometimes a seller will simply tell you in their description that he or she knows little or nothing about the items and then the onus is completely on you to make a determination regarding whether or not you want to bid and how much.

Most sellers are honest and relatively few are outright frauds, in significant part, because EBAY does a rather good job of responding to the most extreme abuses and their evaluation system for sellers is a helpful, but by no means foolproof, guide for assessing potential problems with sellers. Several years ago, I won a small collection of slides from a “reputable” dealer with very high ratings and who also regularly sold such collections. When I got them, I was appalled. They had been described as being in excellent condition and 3/4 of them were in miserable condition. The dilemma for me was that the other 1/4 which were in very good condition, had especially interesting and unusual specimens. I contacted the dealer and expressed my displeasure. I was informed that the slides I bought were a group from a very large collection which had been divided into small lots for selling purposes and that everyone else who had bought lots from this collection was highly satisfied. Being a devout paranoiac, I wondered if they had gone through and picked out the worst ones for me and then thrown in a few good ones in the hope that I would also be “highly satisfied”. It almost worked, but I strongly dislike being taken advantage of, so I reiterated my dissatisfaction and, in fairness, the dealer offered to let me return the slides. Now I didn’t mention before that the slides came in one of those nice little English wooden slide cases with wooden trays. I had never had such a case and was rather taken with it, plus there was the fact that 1/4 of the slides were quite to my liking. There was the additional consideration that I had already paid shipping and if I returned the slides and the case, I would have to pay shipping again, so even if I got a refund I would be paying. As a consequence, I proposed a partial refund and I would keep the slides. We finally negotiated a refund which was satisfactory to neither of us.

James Thurber, the American humorist, once observed: “People are funnier than anybody” and, by that of course, he meant odd, bizarre, wacko, and unpredictable. Buyers and sellers are members of these categories. There is no question but what sellers have to deal with some highly eccentric, difficult, and sometimes obnoxious buyers. However, there are also dealers who are supercilious and condescending or, to put it in the vernacular, downright snotty. There is an antiques dealer in British Columbia who has sets of slides for auction from time to time. On one occasion a particularly interesting looking set came up for auction with photographs of groups of slides, but no descriptions. They were photographed so that the slides were horizontal and one had to turn one’s head 90 degrees to try to read the labels. My eyesight is not terribly good even with glasses and I tried a magnifier as well, but the labels were handwritten in a not easily legible script. I sent an e-mail to the dealer asking if he could provide a brief list–not, I thought, an unreasonable request. I received the following terse, rude reply: “If you can’t read the labels then go bid somewhere else.” I replied by informing him that not only would I not bid on this set nor any future auction he might have, but that I would advise my friends not to bid on his auctions as well. Petty? Perhaps, but I have always had a very low tolerance for impertinence. So, as a buyer, be aware that some sellers can be difficult and unpleasant.

EBAY provides a buyer the opportunity to evaluate the seller after a transaction is complete. You can indicate that your feedback is “positive, “neutral” or “negative”. In addition, you can leave a very brief message limited to 80 characters and that includes the spaces between words. In general, the human ego is not very receptive to criticism. Many sellers on EBAY play an interesting game with feedback. They simply won’t provide any until they see the feedback from the buyer. Of course, neither the seller nor the buyer wants negative feedback and this particular ploy on the part of the seller may create a dilemma for the buyer if he or she is unsatisfied with the transaction. The buyer may wonder: Why hasn’t the seller provided feedback? I paid immediately and the payment has been received, so what’s the problem? Is the seller going to retaliate and give me negative feedback if I don’t give positive feedback. Well, given the way the human psyche works, I would say, yes, that’s probably quite likely. So, always take the ratings with a grain of salt.

Another potential pitfall for the buyer is shipping costs,. I have seen small items with no appreciable weight listed for a minimum bid of 1 dollar and end up selling for that minimum bid. However, the shipping costs were assessed at 20 dollars! Apparently there have been enough abuses of this sort that EBAY has recently instituted a procedure for monitoring shipping costs. This is a tricky issue, because sometimes sellers legitimately factor in the cost of packing materials, especially for very fragile items, and perhaps also, again legitimately, a fee for the time and effort of the seller. However, it is hard to be very sympathetic when a seller gets a free priority mailing carton from the post office, puts in some old newspaper, plops in the item and sends it off. No packing material costs, virtually no effort or time, except perhaps a trip to the post office where it is likely that other items are being mailed off as well.

I would recommend a policy wherein these various costs be listed separately.

1) Actual postal or shipping costs.

2) Actual cost of packing materials.

3) A reasonable (or unreasonable) statement of the cost for time and effort of the seller. If the stated amount seems unreasonable, then the buyer is forewarned and may decide on that basis, not to bid.

Then there is the issue of insurance. On all domestic purchases, I routinely request insurance. On international purchases, the matter is more complicated. Many overseas sellers do not offer insurance for foreign transactions or, if they do, the costs may seem prohibitively high, due to the insurers, not the seller.

Perhaps one of the worst things about internet auctions, from the buyer’s point of view, is the horrible hobgoblin of impulse buying. This is often a problem where something is offered in quantity at what seems a bargain price. To take an extreme fictitious example: buy one at $1.25 or buy a hundred for only $49.95 plus shipping and handling. So, you buy a hundred and later discover that you could have bought them at a standard price from a scientific supply house for $30.

I have a passion for good, older books on microscopy and on specific groups of invertebrate organisms and algae. From time to time, such volumes show up on EBAY. Some buyers are interested in acquiring the first editions. Not me. If I’m going to purchase, say, a copy of Kudo’s Protozoology, I want the last, that is, the 5th edition, which has all of the expanded material and updates. I want books I can use, not financial investments. When a book appears on EBAY that I’m interested in, I immediately go to ABE (American Book Exchange), Amazon, or Bookfinder and check prices. I have on a number of occasions seen books bid up to prices on EBAY that are, from my point of view, simply silly, because one could go to a dealer and buy the book directly for two-thirds or one-half the final auction price. On the other hand, there are some dealers who wildly inflate the price of scarce books. At one point, I wanted to buy a copy of Vance Tartar’s splendid book The Biology of Stentor. I found a dealer on ABE who listed a copy for $300! I sent him an e-mail inquiring whether or not there had been a mistake with the decimal point and whether or not the price should have been $30. I received a polite, but firm, e-mail informing me that $300 was indeed the correct price. Go figure! It’s not as though hundreds of people are avidly seeking out this volume.

Finally, internet auctions can be exciting, frustrating, and fascinating. Items appear that are indeed distinctive and sometimes I put a few on my watch list even though I know I won’t bid on them. I get curious about what they will sell for. Perhaps the most exciting auctions, and in some ways, the most dangerous for impulse bidders, are those on LAB-X. These are set up to get the adrenalin flowing and the pulse racing. Suppose an auction is scheduled to end at 4:10 pm. You can log on at, say, 4:05 pm and see how things are going and how many other “live bidders” are logged on. If you make a bid within the last two minutes before the auction ends, then the auction is extended by 2 minutes. Let us further suppose that there are 3 other bidders online and that you are bidding on a nice cardioid darkfield condenser that will fit wonderfully on your microscope. The bid is at $57. You are bidder Alpha and have made the highest bid so far. Now at 4:09, bidder Beta raised the bid to $65. So, suppose that at 4:11:35, Gamma makes a bid of $75 and the auction is extended to 4:14 pm. Now, you bid $85 and the auction is extended to 4:16 pm and no on else bids and so at 4:16 pm, you become the proud owner of a splendid darkfield condenser and promptly have a massive coronary from the overexcitement. Well, it’s not quite that tense, but my wife refuses to stay in the same room when I’m bidding on anything on LAB-X using the Live Bid module.

I like the challenge and to me it seems more like a real auction, but in order not to put a big dent in your bank account it’s always wise to set a strict limit for every article you are bidding on and stick to it.

For me, the great virtue of the internet in general and internet auctions in particular is the extraordinary access to items that previously were very difficult or virtually impossible to find and/or afford. Now I can obtain specimens of exotic sea urchins and gorgeous tropical beetles, all with a few clicks of buttons on my computer. This is a warning that in the future, you can expect some articles on exotic sea urchins and gorgeous tropical beetles and just to whet your appetite, I’ll show you an image of each.

Whoever named this urchin was possibly thinking–what a crazy little cidaroid. Its genus name is Psychocidaris.

Imagine if one could design an automobile with this combination of form and color–ah, but then only the wealthy could afford it anyway.

All comments to the author Richard Howey are welcomed.


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Published in the October 2006 edition of Micscape Magazine.

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