Buying Fossils on eBay



Buying Fossils on eBay


Buying fossils on eBay in the early years

Buying eBay FossilsMore than a decade ago I bought fossils on eBay during its early years. If you were knowledgeable, and careful, you could get fossils not easily available otherwise, and there were few fossil dealers with their own websites. But, the operable word even then was careful, repeat careful. This was also before eBay stores, and auctions were sort of fun, at least at first – for others it may have been an addition. Back in the day (circa 2005 and before), if you watched carefully. You would quickly discern some was just not right. Good fossils would sometimes go for more than they were worth, and bad fossils for way more than they were worth. A lot of auctions were way beyond suspicious, as I learned by my own experience, and learned more about when the better fossil dealers abandoned eBay, some building their own fossil shops online. There were many honest fossil dealers who were a pleasure to deal with, others obviously not, and knowledgeable and careful fossil buyers could pretty easily separate them. Why did the honest fossil dealers abandon eBay – sabotage, shill bidding, and exaggerations by the dishonest dealers? The dishonest ones employed legions of shill bidding buddies (some real and some with falsified identity). A lot of shill bids pumped up the excitement of the auctions, often making items sell for way too much, especially when coupled with exaggerated claims of quality and rarity. This was a true disservice to the vulnerable buyers. But, if you had the time and was willing to spend the time, the shill bidders became fairly apparent by watching who bid on whose auction, since that information was available. Still, a lot of people got taken.

If this were the whole story, the honest dealers might not have left eBay. What ran them off was sabotage, which took two forms. During this time it was quite easy to create fictitious buyers who would shill bid. When it was time to change one out, they could engage in truly dastardly acts of sabotage. They would bid up a competitor’s auction to an extremely high price, and then vanish forever. The worst sabotage was to win a competitors auction for the sole purpose of leaving negative feedback, with no recourse for the victimized seller. One victimized fossil dealer I’ve now known for a long time left and told me: “you either had to revert to other seller’s behavior to survive, or get the h%^# out of the snake pit”. The best of the dealers followed, most never to return. It got pretty bad, and a chart of EBay’s stock will reveal the pain as its early heydays gave way to the need for them to clean things up, but did they? Read on.

Buying fossils on eBay in the new millennium

The early glory days of eBay roughly coincided with the late 1990’s tech bubble in stocks, with eBay stock participating on the way up, and then on the way down when the bubble burst. Amazon was also emerging, and quickly overtook eBay as a retail venue. With auction fraud running rampant, auction addiction having some in its grips, sellers leaving in droves, and buyers too, eBay took actions over the years, implementing buy-it-now and stores. It also implemented layers of non-transparency in auctions, all under the guises of protecting privacy.
I have not bought a fossil on eBay in more than a dozen years. But, I’ve spoken both to those who buy and those who sell, and you can learn a lot just by watching. The current situation, especially for the naïve buyer, is reminiscent of the old Dirty Harry movie, when he asks the punk:

“I know what you're thinking, punk. You're thinking "did he fire six shots or only five?" Now to tell you the truth I forgot myself in all this excitement. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and will blow you head clean off, you've gotta ask yourself a question: "Do I feel lucky?" Well, do ya, punk?”

From what I’ve see and what I’ve been told by those with first hand experience, several conclusions can be drawn:

  • There are innumerable low cost fossils, which is really great for the beginning collector so long as they are careful, i.e., they compare and exercise patience. For the more sophisticated collector, or the serious collector, the amount of common and low quality fossils that have to be waded through is a daunting task that few will tolerate in search of a fossil of interest. EBay has become the dumping ground for low-quality and common-as-dirt fossils from across the globe.
  • The big dealers and producers, after high-grading fossils for other sales venues, oft the remainder to surrogates and others to sell on eBay (i.e., eBay has become a real dumping ground). The sellers are often supremely unknowledgeable, as is readily apparent in plagiarism of descriptions from respected fossils web sites. Of course, they will often liberally seed the stolen narrative with words such as rare and quality.
  • Sadly, I’m sure many of the naïve buyers fall victim to fakes, and sometimes the more sophisticated do too. If they weren’t falling victim, the fake fossils ubiquitous on eBay would disappear. Some of the world's finest fossils, particularly Trilobites, come out of Morocco. But, Morocco is also the source of many of the fossil fakes that abound on eBay. The Virtual Fossil Museum has a great section on fake fossils, but the author, my friend Ralph admits it is getting a bit dated, and promises an update.
  • I’m actually using the term “fake” as a euphemism that encompasses entire fakes, partial fakes, significant reconstruction, and exaggerated claims of quality and/or rarity. The topic is too large for treatment here, but all of these forms of fakery, disinformation, and exaggeration are widespread on eBay, and your only defense if you shop there, is to arm yourself with knowledge – caveat emptor applies.
  • Occasionally, the serious collector stumbles upon a unique, and/or highly desirable fossil at auction, with low or essentially zero starting bid. This insights bidders and the fun begins. However, such a desirable specimen never sells for a bargain, and many times re-appears months later in another auction by another seller. So, I am told that the shills of yesteryear are still alive and well, but now sellers have had to become much more clandestine in creating multiple “sellers” and forming quid pro quo shil bidding arrangements. Where there is a way, the dishonest will find it, whether on Wall Street, or on eBay.

It seems that: The more things change, the more they stay the same. So, before shopping for fossils on eBay ask yourself: "Do you feel lucky?"

Respectfully submitted, Stephen L

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