Tech Industry

Odd buys are everywhere

Like an online flea market, eBay attracts collectors of the strangest items. An amputation saw, anyone?

I don't frequent flea markets, so I was surprised by the range of items for sale on a recent trip to eBay. Patiently awaiting my bid in the Collectibles/Science/Space Exploration section was a person hoping to unload his Nike Ajax surface-to-air guided missile, which the seller described as "32 feet of shark-like elegance."

Maybe Larry Ellison could buy it, to go with his MiG 29 fighter jet. He could certainly afford the deadly projectile--bidding starts at just $2,345 (warhead not included). However, there is the problem of shipping. The seller, who identified himself only by his email address, said he'd prefer it if the buyer came to pick up the missile at his home, which he said was somewhere in the "DEEP South."

This was obviously out of my league, so I moved on.

The high price of auctions The popularity of flea markets, and therefore of eBay, is due in part to the mania with which people collect the most obscure of goods, from velvet Elvises to velvet furniture; from model cars to minivans. Caught up in the thrill of bidding on that one-of-a-kind item you'll never find at your local thrift shop, eBay users trade feverishly. This is the real mall of America.

Having visited New Orleans' Apothecary Museum on a recent trip there, I decided to see what kinds of old medical instruments are available on the open market. eBay's Antiques/Science Instruments section is a veritable treasure trove of invasive gadgetry. The day I checked, eight amputation instruments were available, including a 19th-century surgical bone saw with a decorative horn handle. (Why anyone would stop to admire the handle's carved decoration in the middle of such an unpleasant procedure is beyond me. Many of the collectibles for sale on eBay--or at your local flea market, for that matter--boggle the practical mind.)

A complete amputation set--including tourniquet and bone rongeur, locking tissue forceps, nickel-plated grasping forceps, and a matched set of five miniature scalpels with ebony handles--was up for sale and with one hour and 26 minutes to go, the bidding had reached $3,350.

Hmm. Too rich for my blood. But "bleriot," a Patiently awaiting my bid was a person hoping to unload his Nike Ajax guided missile, which the seller described as '32 feet of shark-like elegance. budding auctioneer from New England, was hawking a 19th-century enema pump gaily painted with purple and blue flowers. I have to admit, it was a beautiful piece of French porcelain; indeed, the fact that the pump was in working order was just icing on the cake. Still, with two days and 15 hours to go, bidding had already reached $178.50. Not exactly a bargain, so I moved on.

I thought I'd have better luck in eBay's "Weird Stuff" section. Unfortunately, weird on eBay means gags--the kind of gags I haven't seen since I stopped reading Archie comics in the '70s. But the gag industry has evolved since the days when whoopee cushions and squirting lapel pins was about as hilarious as it got.

Unbeknownst to me, in the intervening two decades someone has invented the remote-controlled fart machine, which emits five unique fart sounds. It was for sale by an eBay member named "monopoly," who hoped the fact that it was featured on the Howard Stern show would encourage bidders. Unfortunately, 'weird' on eBay means gags--the kind of gags I haven't seen since I stopped  reading Archie comics in the '70s. Monopoly included some recommendations for usage, such as inserting the fart device inside the holiday turkey for tons of family fun. With three days and one hour to go, he'd already gotten five bids at $11.95 apiece; he still had another 67 in stock.

But if the items up for auction say a lot about who eBay's members are, you can also go straight to the source. With that in mind, I spent some time in the eBay Cafe with what look to be the regulars. "Sit down. Relax. Have a mocha" is the first piece of advice I encountered upon entering the caf?, where an astonishing number of people hang out for hours on end, chatting about everything from "their first time" (bidding on eBay, presumably) to their kids' grades.

In other words, the same things you'd talk about if you were indeed in a caf?, or better yet, the food court of your local mall. Because that's what eBay is: an enormous gathering of collectibles and the people who love to collect them, in a mall of endless possibilities.  

Go to: FAQ: Bidding basics