It sounded like a dream assignment: Investigate online auctions, cruise a few sites in search of rock & roll collectibles, make some bids, then decorate my apartment with my new treasures.
And it started innocently enough. I went first to Sothebys.amazon.com, the online home of the posh British auction house. There I found some choice but pricey items, such as a poster from the Beatles’ last concert ($3,900) and a Telecaster autographed by Led Zeppelin ($1,500). The site also provided a good introduction to music and film collectibles, with tips from Giles Moon, Sotheby’s rock-memorabilia specialist. He gives advice on how to evaluate items – from records to combs to autographs — by their provenance (origin and ownership history) and condition. There’s also a handy glossary, including serious record-collector terms like acetate and test pressing.
So even though I didn’t bid on anything, the site was worth checking out. Other, slightly more affordable items I saw for sale: an acoustic guitar autographed by Jewel (starting bid: $300), Scary Spice’s leopard-print robe ($600) and Noel Gallagher’s sunglasses ($950). The one true temptation was a page of notebook paper with Bob Dylan’s handwritten lyrics to a song from his 1961 repertoire. But with a $2,000 reserve (the minimum bid that the seller will accept), it was over my head, so I let it go.
I also managed to maintain self-control at the memorabilia auction at VH1.com, which has a site linked to its weekly TV program Rock Collectors (Saturdays at noon), the channel’s rock & roll version of Antiques Roadshow. Most of the online stuff has been donated by musicians, and the proceeds go to the VH1 Save the Music charity. I know it’s a good cause, but do I really want one of Sammy Hagar’s Hawaiian shirts (opening at $25)? And how could I justify buying one of Billy Joel’s Steinway pianos — at $25,000-plus? I gave at the office.
Next stop, Amazon.com. Most of the items on its auction site seemed too mass-production for my taste – gobs of promo CDs and posters, used recordings of every format and concert programs. Maybe this is the graveyard for the oceans of goodies that rock journalists receive from record companies. There are also tons of “limited-edition” bottles of wine with rock stars on the label, hardly authentic as pieces of pop-culture history. (OK, when I was still a neophyte, I got suckered into the 1996 First Edition Bob Dylan wine, to the tune of $25, plus $7.25 for shipping.)
That left the best for last: eBay. Collectaholics everywhere already know how totally addictive this site can be. As a longtime yard-sale junkie, I should have known that eBay would get my adrenaline pumping like it does on a daylong prowl through the Rose Bowl swap meet in Pasadena. And this I could manage without a trip to California.
I began by gazing for hours at a tremendous cavalcade of music memorabilia, including hard-to-find recordings, unique photos, and ephemera and tchotchkes of all kinds, originating from early blues musicians, classic country & western stars, obscure garage bands and cult heroes. I discovered everything from a pair of extremely rare picture-sleeve 45s by proto-punk German Sixties band the Monks to a reel-to-reel recording of the Flying Burrito Brothers’ first album to a Western shirt custom-made for Stevie Ray Vaughan by the legendary designer Nudie.
Then I took the plunge. eBay is extremely user-friendly; in fact, once you start, it’s hard to stop.
After a quick and painless registration, I used the “search” function to find what I wanted, first in simple ways, then more creatively. I discovered that it pays to be inventive about the search terms you plug in. For instance, only by inputting the word hillbilly did I find a 1953 Scrapbook of Hillbilly and Western Stars ($7.50) and Don Howard’s Hillbilly Hits Program 1946 ($20), along with some cool vintage sheet music ($7) by obscure hillbilly bands. Trying an assortment of search key words yields the best results, because you never know how some knucklehead is going to list what he’s selling. It also helps to be very specific. When I typed in the generic “Bob Dylan,” for instance, I got 685 offerings. After I input “Dylan autograph,” one item popped up. That’s how I joined the chase for a signed copy of Dylan’s Empire Burlesque on vinyl. I used eBay’s proxy-bidding service, listing $100 as the top price I’d pay. For a while I thought I’d get the LP for even less, since eBay automatically enters bids for you in small increments until it reaches your limit. But in the very last hours of the auction, while I — still a novice — wasn’t online, wily veterans were bidding like crazy. It sold for $197.50. (If only I’d bid $200!)
I tried consoling myself with the thought that the autograph was probably a fake (even though the site showed a clear picture of the signature and the seller explained how he’d obtained it). I called Giles Moon at Sotheby’s to get his expert opinion. He agreed that bidding for autographed items can be risky, even when the seller offers a certificate of authenticity, which can be faked or signed by a nonexpert. “Signatures are a tricky part of the market,” Moon says, “unless you really know what you’re looking at.” eBay does offer some protection against scams, however, and buyers and sellers are encouraged to post feedback about their transactions.
I then checked out some Hank Williams-signed items. A concert program autographed by Hank started at $850 — too high for me. But what was described as a “Hank Williams Sr. Signature Matted to 11 x 14” included a great photograph and required an opening bid of only $100. I made my offer, eventually raising it to $350. My heart sank three days later when I lost it to “rickhankfan,” who put up $450. But I did snag some of my other C&W idols’ autographs: a concert program signed by the late Hank Snow and eight lesser-known artists ($26.95), and a wonderful 1960s black-and-white photograph of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash in performance, signed by both, for $79.99.
eBay’s thrift-shop aspect is a big part of its appeal. “I have clients who swear by eBay,” Moon told me. “They get a lot of great bargains from people who don’t realize what they’ve got.” I’ve bought a few things for less than $5 (an out-of-print album by Delaney and Bonnie with Gram Parsons and Duane Allman, $3) and have successfully bid on numerous items in the $10-$12 range.
Most of the sellers have been real friendly folks who send congenial e-mails giving their mailing address and payment information. Everyone seems honest and trusting: Of the twenty-five items I recently purchased (yikes!), I paid for all but five with personal checks, though sellers usually wait for checks to clear before sending the package. In a rush for a few big-ticket items, I sent money orders, and one seller even accepted Visa. I discovered that shipping costs can really add to the price, which I didn’t consider while feverishly bidding on something that weighs a lot (a stack of old singing-cowboy 78s).
The biggest downside is that eBay is too much fun: I’ve gotten so caught up in winning items that I’ve spent more than I should have. Also, eBay has become such a habit that I can’t let a day go by without a quick check to see whether anything of interest has been listed. Two hours of browsing later, I realize that I’ve just bid on a half-dozen things that will never fit in my apartment.
I’ve also had a few letdowns once my prizes arrived. I loved my 1950s bracelet, a-jangle with tiny metal charms of a hot dog, a pretzel, a Coke bottle and mini 78s — until the Hank Williams-record charm fell off. The first item I bought — “Roy Acuff, Carter Sisters, Hank Williams Sr. PIC” ($9.99) — took nearly a month to arrive and turned out to be an enlarged scan of a blurry photo. Another time, I was contacted by a seller, offering something I thought I had lost out on: a Renaldo and Clara video, which he sold to me for the $25 I’d bid. It turned out to be a fuzzy copy someone had taped from TV.
Then again, I got a Johnny Cash/Bob Dylan bootleg ($33) when the high bidder withdrew. And remember the incredible Hank Williams autograph on which I was a low bidder? Almost a month after the auction, the seller e-mailed me with the news that “rickhankfan” hadn’t coughed up the dough. Would I still be interested? My pulse raced; $450 seemed reasonable for such a rare item. And for an additional $425, I got a matted Patsy Cline autograph, too.
I now feel connected to a whole network of like-minded, bug-eyed souls. I never waste time watching TV anymore. But one question remains: Where am I going to put all this stuff?
Find out at the next meeting of eBay Anonymous, which I plan to organize right after I see whether any new Gram Parsons stuff has come up for sale.