5 Characteristics of Valuable Collectibles

6 May 2010

We all ooh and awe when a collectible item fetches a record price. Sometimes we mutter under our breath when a much desired collectible is financially out of reach.  In a market based on nonessential spending free market economics reign supreme.  Its strictly about who has the goods and who wants to acquire them.   In business law the combination of the “willing buyer and a willing seller” makes commerce possible and delights the hearts of capitalists everywhere.  But what forces bring your favorite collectible to the magic price point which brings it into our possession.  Conversely, how do we account for stratospheric prices that give us pause when the gavel falls at auction.

Value is a complex concept, read Robert Pirsigs Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance.  I will identify five factors that give value to the things that reach out and grab us at the flea market.

1.   Rarity is the most important factor in determining the value  of  collectible artifacts.  The classic example is the inverted Jenny air mail postage stamp of 1918 in which the Curtiss biplane depicted on the design was printed upside down    Only one pane of 100 stamps was ever found. This interesting little error fetched $2.7 million one fine October day in 2205.  Now 1918 was quite a long time ago in our minds but not as postage stamps go.   many things far older can not hope to rouse this kind of interest simply because there are many examples still in existance.

2.   Some would count age as the defining factor in determining value but for the reasons stated above I hold it to be secondary.  Age comes closer to rarity in importance as we move back along the time line of history.  Truly ancient items have historical value that translates to monetary value.  That valuation must often be supported by proof of age.  Beware, Age is one of the easiest things to fake.  Oh! Did I mentioned that there are shady characters in the antiques and collectible trade?  I am truly dismayed.

3.   Historicity plays a role often in relationship to the possessor of an artifact.  The events that surround an item will give it significance.  A Civil War era musket will have greater value if it is known to have been the property of a particular soldier.  Where the musket has been and even who owned it in subsequent years may lend further value.  In this category provenance takes on primary importance.

4.  Occasionally an item may gain particular value due to it’s utility.  Antique tools in the hands of a skilled craftsman can be valuable aids in reconstructing the past or in building things using nearly lost arts.  Many woodworkers love to use old saws and handplanes thinking them superior to modern technology.  Personally I wouldn’t give up my old Stanley planes.  It’s hard to find really good chisels.  Even their decorative value is so much greater than their modern counterparts.  When have you seen anyone hang a biscuit joiner or cordless drill/driver on their den wall?

5.  One factor remains as especially important right at the point of purchase of a collectible item.  The condition of an item is going to support every other aspect of value.   To be utilized it must be strong and not corroded.  Maker’s marks will be sharper and easier to discern on clean surfaces that haven’t been worn away.  In some cases rarity may not be a matter of finding an example of the artifact one desires so much as finding one intact and in good condition.

Naturally these areas are subject to compromise for many collectors.  Our natural acquisitiveness can drive our pocket books.  Ultimately this question of value which we express in dollars is answered by our definition of quality.

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How Cooperative Are You?

2 May 2010

The antiques business is filled with characters. It seems to appeal to people with eclectic tastes and individualistic temperaments. I have met very few boring dealers or serious collectors.  Not many people start up in this business early in life.  Most of us come to it after having gone through earlier job or career cycles.  Retirees are common in the trade.  There are a lot of part-timers supplementing their primary income.  Auctioneers are a whole subspecies of their own.

At one time I was in two different antique mall cooperatives. The personalities involved were interesting and sometimes challenging. A co-op is a weird assembly, a sort of  team effort but with the understanding that every man is in it for himself. At both places there was a requirement to work at the establishment for two days each month. I found the experience was good research into buyers habits and desires yet some dealers chose to pay other coop members to stand-in for them.

One co-op was in a large, drafty, former milking barn. Winter days found us huddled around the woodstove giving the place the ambienceof an old country store. The social interaction was great and we really got to know each other.  I heard stories of people from many walks of life.  I knew a guy who was an aide de camp to a general in WWII.  He was still in the army during the Bay of pigs incident in Cuba.  There were people who experienced the great depression.  We could learn a thing or two from those folks now.

In the other mall we had good heat and a tight insulated building.  we also had some old timers who knew there way around the business pretty well.  There was a husband and wife who were retired and sold antiques both to supplement income and as a way to stay active and engaged in the community.  He had been a music teacher at the local high school and she was a former District Justice.  They were both well read and didn’t lack culture.  He was a distinguished gentleman who seemed to be constantly in search of the “perfect Manhattan.”  They knew everybody and their kin for miles around and were a better guide to local history than any book was.  In his younger days he ran with some fellows who learned the trade by going “on the knock.”  Their guide to finding antiques was to look for old houses with lace curtains.  Nine times out of ten there would be an old woman living there and it could be well worth the trouble to stop and inquire if she had any old furniture she wanted to get rid of or a garage or attic needing to be cleaned out.

Most of the old guys I knew who had that kind of chutzpah had a barn stuffed to the rafters with good old stuff to sell.  While most dealers put a lot of effort into presenting a neat display of there wares in the particular booth they rented.  Some of these guys created a studied disorder that created an impression of clutter to draw buyers into the idea of finding special treasure amongst the obvious junk.  Some people seem to like something more if they “discovered” it.  The most successful dealer I knew operated this way.  Just keep things messy enough to make people feel that they are in terra incognita and hang up a 10% off sign and the world will beat a path to your door.  It always seemed to work with the tourists from New York.  and we loved New Yorkers.  But that’s another story.

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A Devine Collection Goes Up for Auction

29 April 2010

When God speaks we tend to get our butts in gear.  How well are we listening and how quick are we to respond? According to Antique Trader magazine, word comes from Indianapolis that the owner of a major collection of antiques will be putting his cherished items on the block soon  This amounts to about 900 lots of vintage Americana at Dan Ripley’s Antique Helper during an auction May 15 in Indianapolis.

The collection is diverse, ranging from Arts & Crafts to outsider art. More than just the antique collection is intriguing. The owner, Mike Kirk of Hardinsburg, Indiana, says God told him to sell off  his antique collection.  This occurred at a mens’ conference where the Lord is said to have told Mr. Kirk to”Present my talents” to the church where the event was taking place.  I guess there must have been some mighty fine preaching too.

The collection includes over 200 paintings and 50 prints, Arts and Crafts pieces, a large amount of tramp art frames and vintage advertising. Kirk who is the creator of the Carhartt logo was a successful dealer in antiques and decorative items. It will be interesting to see what kind of prices this collection fetches for the cause.

The live sex videochat antiques market is one based on artifacts that are not necessary to our lives. Apart from a few people who utilize vintage tools which perform a unique function, we buy them because they have an aesthetic appeal or create a certain style for our homes or on our persons.   American acquisitiveness can reach into realms that are downright bizarre. This is not to say that we should all turn in our tchotchkes for sack cloth and ashes. maybe we just need a little self-examination occasionally to preserve our sense of proportion.

In this age of consummate materialism we don’t often see religious conviction motivating people to divest themselves of such worldly trappings. The “contemporary” Gospel is often taught in the context of laudable social behavior because the idea of revealing our sinful nature is wildly unpopular in today’s culture.  Theology is an ancient artifact, the patina that enhances all of civilizations learning.  The cross outshines any polished mahogany or gold leaf. Scripture urges all of us who possess ears to hear. It’s nice to know somebody is still doing that. I don’t know Mike Kirk but I hope that his motives are pure and that God is glorified by what he has so generously given up.

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Sold! To the Man Hidden in the Crowd.

20 April 2010

Well the Hardy silk fly line provided some excitement in my house. It was interesting that I had actual early bids but things heated up again on Saturday and went back and forth into Sunday. It took ten bids in all to win this auction with one bidder responding to all comers until the last second of the auction when a sniper got the last bid in precisely at 5:00 the scheduled end of the auction.

The final price was $177.58. Not bad for a piece of old string purchased in a local antique shop. Throughout the week I got several requests for shipping costs to various foreign countries. In fact this item will be going to Luxembourg. Both of the other two auctions I had going resulted in items sold. A good week on eBay. I will set aside some of the cash to look for more items to sell. I have a lot of blog business to attend to so I did not post new auctions this week. Next week I may try a few interesting aviation items. Sure wish I could find more old string.


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Reeling Them In

16 April 2010

Silk Fly Fishing Line Winding Up Tighter

Encouragement is very effective medicine.  There is nothing like simply doing well to raise a person’s spirits.  My last post mentioned a Hardy silk fly line that I posted in auction format on eBay.  it feels good to be back in the saddle.

I am truly pleased at how this auction is going so far.  I currently have 2 bids with the current one at $102.50.  There are 16 people watching and 148 views.  I can’t remember when I last had such an awesome response.  I hope it’s a good sign for eBay.  One of the things helping out with traffic to the auction is how some fishing collectibles picked up on it and featured it on their website.  excellent free advertising.

Going Global is Good


There has been inquiries from two potential bidders on this item asking about foreign shipping rates.  One from Austalia and the other from Hong Kong.  Every eBay item should attract so much attention.    Ultimately it is about real value which is inherent in the craftsmanship of the merchandise.

Check in on Sunday at 5:00 Pacific time to see the outcome.  even though I am surprised to have seen this much interest so early in the week the real action usually happens in the last minutes or even seconds.

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Diving into the eBay

13 April 2010

Once upon a time in a land on the other side of the continent I hacked out my living trading in collectibles. I came to it as an alternative to working as a paralegal.  About the time I got fed up with lawyers and their barely disguised ethical deficiencies the internet gave rise to a whole new way for people to part from their money.  EBay emerged from the internet on a mercantile flood tide.  I was already situated in an Antiques mall after spending several months researching the business and gathering some inventory.

September of 1996 saw the quiet arrival of ebay which soon rose to make a big noise in American culture.  I was what they call an early adopter.  I was into computers and they fit with my new business so I was off and running.  Those were the good years.  The site had lot’s of traffic and everyone seemed to get into the spirit of auction style bidding.  The fees were well below anything you had to pay at local auction houses.

Ebay has it’s ups and downs.  I noticed a trend that matched the stock market generally and consumer confidence indexes more specifically.  for the most part I did okay all the time with nice upward movement during the holiday season and immediately after.  Things began to deteriorate when the Dot com bubble burst in early 2000.   Ebay rallied but September 11, 2001 brought things almost to a halt.   Christmas sales were less vigorous than prior years I hung in there and began to see a comeback in late summer 2001 (your mileage may have varied).

About that time other forces brought changes in my personal life.  I relocated from Pennsylvania to Washington.  The area I am in is not a good hunting ground for antiques and collectibles.  I dabbled in eBay occasionally but haven’t gotten  much out of it.  Until two weeks ago It was a year since I posted anything on eBay.  I figured that if I was going to shoot my mouth off in this blog I should be willing to get back in the game.

Diving in feet first I posted two items.  They were a felt pennant souvenir of the Golden Gate International Exposition 1939-40 and a  WWII silk survival map.  I didn’t put high starting bids on them, just $18.00 AND $12.00.  I got bids and had both sold and shipped out in good order.  The next week I put on just one item, a WWII yearbook from the airman’s training school in Garden City, Kansas.  It went for $35.00.

Not a rapid start but I have been selling everything, That’s the way I like it. The trend I’ve noticed for a long time is a lack of competitive bidding. So many buyers seem content to go for things with “Buy it Now” status. That’s fine for new items you could actually get at a store in your own city. I tend to use higher starting bids now so that I don’t take losses. I like everything to at least break even.

This week I had a pleasant surprise. I posted three things among which was a Hardy silk fly line. This is a great little fishing collectible from a bygone era. It comes from a day when fly-fishing was often done with superbly crafted bamboo poles using silk lines and gut leaders. they are a thing of beauty in both there appearance and utility. This particular line is in it’s original box with all the original labels. I have a good idea of it’s worth and started it at $97.00. I had a bid within a couple of hours. better than that, I have 10 watchers and have 64 views so far with five days left. All the other items did not receive more than a half a dozen views.

could this be a return to the good old days? Well maybe for this item. I know there are still buyers in touch with the concept of quality. Let’s hope for a marketplace that gives us all opportunity.

If you are interested in seeing the item I am talking about follow the link: Vintage Hardy Silk Fly Line

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Time is Money – in a Bottle

12 April 2010

I’ve done a lot of talking about value in this blog.  The influence of auction prices is a starting point for appraisals of antiques and collectibles the world over.  There are several regularly published price guides.  Some people swear by them others swear… well they use them as a starting point.  I can imagine that a lot of the standard price guides have gone a bit stale.  The economic woes we are all suffering have surely taken a toll on prices realized at auction.

Incredibly there is still some ground breaking action in the markets.  A recent article in Antique Trader magazine headlined the setting of a new world record for a bottle at $100,620.  I have to admit, I’m rather impressed.  Of course this is a genuinely old item with an interesting historical provenance.  This bottle is known as the “Firecraker Flask.”  Blown in blue glass by the Kensington Glass Works, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. sometime between 1820 and 1840 it’s color blue is particularly rare.

The bottle commemorates the deaths of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both of whom passed away on the 4th of July 1826.  The bottle was formerly in the collections of  William Pollard and Warren C. Lane, Jr.

The former record was  set by American Bottle Auctions of Sacramento, Calif., which involved the sale of a Bryant’s cone-shaped Bitters electronic cigarette for non smokers bottle.
That one realized a price of $68,750 in 1999.  That’s a pretty amazing jump considering that there is no government stimulus cash for clinking bottles program.

When records such as this are broken we take notice.  It sends folks scurrying to their basements with unrealistic expectations.  Still it’s nice to know that somebody out there is ready to spend some serious cash on nonessential items.  The antique and collectibles trade is rife with events like this.  Boom and bust are doled out in approximately equal proportions.  Remember the ripples that went through the economy after the World Trade Towers were brought down?  Social upheaval has a chilling effect on an industry that is based on buyers disposable income.

The long term outlook for the economy still seems uncertain.  The wise player in this game will ride the rallys and plan for the downturns.  Call it market surfing.  Keep your eye on the waves and don’t be afraid to get your feet wet.

Knowledge is Power

Keep yourself up to date. You won’t find out what you need to know on CNN or FOX. Listen to the buzz around your local antique mall and flea markets. get the latest price guides at some place like Amazon. Read the regional antique trade newspapers. It’s war out there and good intelligence is priceless.

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Hammer and Tongs, Allies and Enemies

4 April 2010

Auctions are great places for people watching. There is usually an eclectic mix of personalities and most everyone there has an agenda. The crowd divides into two basic camps: dealers and non dealers. The two groups are not in open conflict but there are tensions.

I started going to auctions a long time before entering the antiques trade. I remember that dealers were kind of looked on as greedy and not operating completely above board. When my status changed from collector to dealer, my attitude changed. I still recognized a kernel of truth in my former way of thinking. Dealers dominate the room.

As a new dealer I was roundly ignored by my colleagues. After a time I became known in the trade and found that there was indeed a sort of brotherhood of dealers. In the auction house environment this was manifested in informal agreements.

This became apparent one day when a fellow antiques dealer standing beside me at a preview opened a line of questioning I had not yet run into. he must have noticed that my examination of items had certain themes or areas of interest. We got to talking about the merchandise and he casually offered that he would not bid on the items I was clearly interested in. Implicit in this was an assurance that I would likewise refrain from bidding on items he was concentrating on. Okay, I could see the advantage.

This sometimes goes according to genre. The furniture dealers will stay away from the glass who stay away from the old books who stay away from the old advertising, etc. This is okay as along as nobody is in collusion to drive up prices.

Casual deals are made all the time. It doesn’t give you exclusive control of bidding but it does cut down on a little bit of competition. keep in mind if you are interested in a cut glass vase and somebody else wants it too, then it’s just a matter of who has the most money and motivation. This is why it is so important for a dealer to know his market.

I was always a electronic cigarette drops niche marketer antway. Why buy something that is outside your area of expertise? Focus on your own auction and stay on the money trail.

One of the most interesting and entertaining characters in the auction room is the person who buys out of emotion or sheer desire to have that one thing that is sure to blind him like a brand new silver dollar reflecting the noon day sun. Such a person is liable to get hijacked by shills. I know, shills are illegal and immoral. They are associated in some way to the auctioneer 9paid to perform, keeps teir brother-in-law off the street) and deliberately drive up the bidding. It’s extremely hard to exposed their misdeeds. Your best defense is to bid wisely and deliberately.

On the other hand, it’s very entertaining to sit and watch a good honest bidding war run around the room. It happens because there is a truly rare and precious item on the block, personalities are colliding or two people are just turning to ashes in the heat of the moment.

You see it coming when the bidding gets above what the average Joe sees things go above pocket money level. There is usually a murmur at the hundred dollar level. The dealers generally have some snse of the market in higher end shops. They aren’t excited yet. if the bidding continues at a steady pace with no hesitation the room will go very quiet. Everyone gets caught up in the moment and heads start to swivel looking to identify the combatants. The tension builds until the auctioneer has finally called, “sold!” Applause often follows with perhaps some chuckling by those who have inside knowledge.

I’ve seen this happen many times for various reasons. A common one is the result of family members having a show down. “Grandma said I could have her sewing box when she was gone.” If you didn’t get get your due from the will then the estate sale is your second bite of the apple.

Find a good auction house to attend regularly. There’s no cover charge and on a good day it’s better than TV.

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You’re Only as Antique as You Feel

30 March 2010

We draw a certain meaning from any work we do. One can’t be in the antique business and not think about time and aging.  You constantly handle artifacts from simpler eras.  Many dealers are old-timers who have been in the game a long time and know how much it has changed.  The insight I have drawn from antiquing is a change in the pace of life.  Thank you, industrial revolution!

Collecting antiques and displaying them in our homes is a recognition that we value history.  Estate sales  are glimpses into the past as lived by ordinary people with sometimes extraordinary bits of residue from historic moments.

I once knew a dealer who bought an old bottle at an estate sale in the Pennsylvania coal regions.  He was intrigued by the french inscription etched in the glass and the thick black liquid sealed inside with a crystal stopper.  It turned out to be oil drained from the engine of the Spirit of St. Louis at Le Bourget  airport.  When Lindbergh landed, the mob that greeted him began to take bits and pieces of the plane as souvenirs. Police had to guard it through the night.

Today’s advertising can be overwhelming, even annoying.  You will find any antique mall  and many shops to be chock full of old advertising treated as high art.  The multitudinous tins and bottles of kitchen and other household products are equally celebrated for their rarity and quaintness.  Back in the sixties we rebellious types bemoaned our materialistic throwaway society.  No archeology site is complete without it’s midden.  We celebrate junk by viewing it in a new light.

The average antique shop is not a palace of treasured items built by the best craftsman of times past.  genuine Chippendale is apt to already be in a museum or some stinking rich guys mansion.  Instead we have the horse collar from the days of slow transportation,  The typewriter from the days of slow communication, soda fountain stools from the days before fast food.  When my father was a boy no aircraft flew past the speed of sound. When my Grandfather was a boy there were no airplanes.  He plowed with a horse  and when he grew up he took a slow boat to Europe to fight in The Great War.

Maybe the slower pace of the past meant less luxury and harder work.  Although the reports I see on the news are indicating that Americans spend more time at work and of course the two wage earner family is becoming a necessity in this economy.  We are definitely on the go  and have adapted to a hurried lifestyle.

This became apparent to me a couple of years ago when I found myself in a situation where I was required to use an old rotary dial phone.  They were the only thing available in my world until about 1968.  I placed my finger in the hole corresponding to the first number and rotated the dial.  Then I let it return to the starting position.  This continued for all eight digits in the telephone number.  Half way through this process it occurred to me that the whole thing was very annoying.  Why should I be annoyed at a stupid old phone?

It wasn’t the effort of dialing that put me off.  My fingers were not weak.  I didn’t lack faith that the call would go through.  It was simply having to wait for the dial to return to the starting position before dialing the next number.  It was robbing me of precious seconds.  So, how pathetic am I?  I wonder if my Grandson will look back on the cell phone and think, ” how quaint?  Imagine pushing all those buttons.  Where did they find the time?”

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Playing it cool

27 March 2010

An auction preview can be a noisy social affair.  Let the party go on around you.  The best approach to auction buying is to play it cool.  You are there to score valuable treasure.  The value you place on a given item is important information.  Success can depend on not telegraphing it all over the room.

The typical auction house will have all merchandise visible, usually on various tables or in display cases.  Close inspection is normally possible.   Examine everything with an eye to putting an upper limit on what you are willing to pay for a given object.  If in the process you come across something you just have to have, in superb condition and rarer than air on the moon, DO NOT REACT!  Words like “wow”, “oh my God” and the like are verboten.   Just put the item down like it was simply another worn out old thing and move along.  Maybe even go and gush over something gaudy and tasteless that you wouldn’t take on a bet.  Chances are someone else will have spotted the treasure.  Let the other pirates find their own “X” marking the spot.

Having spotted your quarry it is time to examine the lay of the land.  Sitting at the back of the room is good strategic positioning. It’s like holding the high ground.  Remember to use subtle bidding signals.  You are hiding in plain sight but you get busted when the runners bring your purchase to you.  Too late, the auctioneer has already shouted the magic word -“SOLD!”

During the bidding I like to bid in rapid succession.  Let somebody else take the first bid.  Immediately get in on the bidding as soon as it takes off in earnest.  Keep in mind that you may be bidding against several competitors.  As soon as the auctioneer has taken a bid, flash your signal.  This is where the pace can really pick up unless the auctioneer deliberately slows things down.  This seldom happens.  As the bid price goes up heads will start to swivel all around the room. Everybody wants to know who mister confident is.  Many people will jump to the conclusion that a determined buyer is in the room. There is, it’s you.

While previewing tray lots at an auction house I spotted one with a jumble of drafting tools and a couple of okay but not spectacular slide rules There was also a very interesting non-descript black instrument case about eighteen inches long.  I could just about swear that thing was giving off visible vibrations.  I asked a runner to see the tray.  I casually looked over various items, deliberately not making a bee line for the case.  There were other dealers right next to me examing things and I tried to appear dismissive towards what I was looking at.

It was easy to estimate the worth of the individual tools and instruments getting a running total in my mind.  I had discovered in the past that slide rules were a good niche market and readily salable on eBay.  The tray, thus far, was worth an easy $30.00 total so I didn’t want spend more than $10.00 at most.  When I got to the instrument case the situation became more interesting. It was a plain paper covered case typical for old drafting tools, slide rules, navigation instruments, etc.  It opened at the ends and withdrew a wooden slide rule with shellacked paper scales.  This baby was old and it was in very good condition.  It’s not easy to come up with a value on something like that unless you’ve seen it on sale before.  What I was sure of was that it was desirable to the tune of several hundred bucks.  I was a little strapped and had about $50.00 on me if I was willing to fore-go lunch.

Buzzing on high frequency, I took my seat and waited for the auction to begin.  I didn’t sit in back for this one.  Instead I sat where I could watch the tray to see if it attracted a lot of attention.  It didn’t.  The runner had placed it back on the table which was nicely crowded that day with a pretty normal assortment of oldish things.  Nice enough but dead common.  The star items that everyone in the room were certain to fight over were on the next table and in display cases around the room. I only saw one other person examine the tray.  He didn’t check out the instrument case but instead took a seat two rows in front of me and slightly to one side.

When the tray finally reached the block the auctioneer briefly described the contents. Just like the other guy he never took the slide rule out of it’s case.  Had he done so I know other dealers in the room who would have taken notice.  Wooden instruments with paper scales equal collector money in anyone’s antique shop.  The bidding was offered at twenty dollars with no takers.  It went all the way down to fifty cents before someone took the bid. I countered at a dollar and then the gentleman in front of me took up the bid running it up fifty cents and then a dollar per bid.  I signaled my bid as soon as I could with subtle nods of my head.  The other guy could tell by the auctioneers gaze that his competition was somewhere behind him.  He kept trying to turn his head just enough to spot me but his counter bidding slowed quickly as he lost heart for the game. the whole thing took less time that it takes to tell this story.  I walked away with my treasure trove for seven dollars.

I really expected to have a tougher time of it than that.  I didn’t even stay for the whole auction.  I was too keyed up and besides I could afford lunch.  Giving the slide rule a close examination at home I found it to be in beautiful condition with markings dating it to 1899, manufactured in Philadelphia.   It was a perfect eBay item.  The loose tools on the tray went for about $40.00.  The slide rule netted $800.00.  Not a bad score and the entire episode was a thrill for me from beginning to end.

I’m not saying that you run into those special moments everyday.  Maybe that’s a good thing.  I wouldn’t want something that tasty to go stale.  Just remember that you can pick up some hot merchandise by playing it cool.

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