|SEATTLE - It’s an age-old question: What sells best?
Computer web designer and "natural-born" treasure hunter James Massey believes he has an inside track on the answer. He’s been studying the antiques and collectibles market for more than 12 years now.
And what he often finds is sometimes hard to believe.
In 1999, he began the unusual habit of tracking the best, most extraordinary - and just downright odd eBay auctions. Not only would he spend hours navigating the weird world of eBay, but he freely admits he would "hold family, friends, neighbors and even total strangers captive" with seemingly endless yarns about his "finds."
It wasn’t long before he (with some help) designed software applications that can sift through "tens of thousands" of items all day long, monitoring the ever shifting sands of eBay.
About two years ago he began posting his findings on WhatSellsBest.com ("so he can stop bothering us," his friends say) - a compilation of what has sold for the highest figure in nearly 20 categories; plus an overall "10 rare items sold," and a "what is hot" tracking of on-going auctions.
Massey weeds out most of the "crack pot" items - the Virgin Mary potato chip, the soul of Edgar Allan Poe - based on a complicated formula of feedback, bids and other esoteric variables.
"I’m just aiming for the legitimate sellers," he says. "I think that eBay is a good reflection of market trends. I think we can track trends, and sometimes highlight the extraordinary pieces … it makes for interesting reading, I think."
The results often surprise even a veteran such as Massey; but, as he will avow, there’s often a good reason behind the "anomaly."
Such is the mid-April sale of the well-known inaugural Playboy magazine issue, featuring Marilyn Monroe on the cover, which sold for an astounding $39,900.
The magazine had an open bid of $9,999, and after 27 bids among four aggressive competitors, the famous Playboy cover - originally selling for 50 cents - went into the stratosphere with its record bid.
"I’ve seen (Playboy) first issues, in very good to excellent condition, sell between $2,000 and $4,000 on eBay, and have read reports of mint condition copies exceeding $5,000 in other auctions. But, I haven’t seen any at this price level on eBay before."
And the seller of the Playboy, Ross Koondel, sales manager at Neat Stuff Collectibles LLC maintains "you’ll never see another one like it."
Describing this particular magazine as "an iconic piece of American pop culture," Koondel said he was not surprised, at all, with the nearly $40,000 price tag.
Undeniably a record price for a vintage Playboy, the magazine was described in "new" condition, ranked a 9.4 by the independent Certified Guaranty Company (CGC).
"It was a once-in-a-lifetime deal," Koondel, whose company bought the magazine from the original owner, said. "It was a very significant find. Condition was the key. We were the ones who took it to the grading company. Here, you have a magazine setting on a shelf on a flat surface, without direct sunlight, in a thermally controlled room for more than 50 years. It’s not in a bag and board; it’s as perfect as you can get … and you’ll never see it again, not in this condition."
Expressing his confidence in the Playboy, "we’d be glad to buy it back for that same price," Koondel said. "We’re that confident in all our sales. This is just the kind of stuff - the extremes - which bring this stuff out of the woodwork."
And the extremes keep coming, according to Massey’s ever-churning findings.
For example, an inflatable 1903 Spalding football helmet, with the inimitable "rarest of the rare" eBay description, recently sold for $27,700. The helmet, advertised as "probably not used," started at $500 and ended up at its five-figure destination after 38 bids.
"I’ve never seen anything like that," Massey says.
Or consider the 1977 release of God Save the Queen by the English punk rock band The Sex Pistols, selling for $23,805 in mid-April after receiving 37 bids.
Then, there’s just the plain weird - and perhaps, unaccounted for: during the latter days of March, two keys purporting to be "The Doomsday Missile Launch Keys" from a Soviet ICBM unit sold for $6,351.
"From what I see, it seems that sales in a lot of collectibles have picked up," Massey says. "Like coins, in the first quarter of this year, we’ve had a coin over $100,000. That is something that never happened last year; about $40,000 was the highest seen."
And, the wheels keep churning. At AntiqueWeek press time, a 1957 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL roadster was beginning to crest over the half-million dollar figure; a poster from the movie, Gilda, starring Rita Hayworth was climbing beyond the $13,000 mark; and a CGC 7.5 Spiderman Silver Age comic had just hit the $30,000 mark.
"I think one thing that makes my research interesting that you’re seeing the cream of the crop," Massey says. "And there’s always something new. There are those really legitimate oddities - those things that you may never see again - and sometimes you see them really take off."
Massey maintains he’s never been a collector; but, there’s the vicarious thrill of watching the product from the hunt that he says: not only sharpens his skills, but consistently reflect that there’s still a multitude of antiques and collectibles - heretofore overlooked - that still brings big money.
Eric C. Rodenberg