As far as I'm concerned, there are but two ways to procure the wide-collared sable coat of your dreams: Go to your neighborhood furrier, show him the picture of the Prada cloak you were dying for two seasons ago, and plunk down $100,000. Or type "sable coat" into eBay's search engine every single day before you have your morning coffee—and then just wait.
It worked for me. My barely used sable—the furrier selling it told me it came from a socialite whose name he could not divulge—cost a mere $2,200. It has the exact open collar Miuccia first sketched and has made me a very happy woman.
Ten years ago it never would have happened this way. When eBay first launched, it was a kind of online neighborhood yard sale full of the castoffs of a country; today it's a true connoisseur's playground. Legions of surprisingly well-heeled bidders can attest to eBay's status as an international high-end auction site for shoppers like themselves: people who can buy whatever they want, whenever they want it, until, of course, they can't. When that day arrives—an item is discontinued, they miss the winter sale at Sotheby's, the waiting list closes—they turn to eBay. There is the high-profile investor who insists on wearing pre-Tom Ford round-toe Gucci loafers; he has bought every single pair available in size 10 but still checks in on the stock nightly via computer. The dandified collector of early Vivienne Westwood zoot suits no longer waits for a call from his favorite vintage couture dealer; instead he just presses the power button on his Mac. Name your most idiosyncratic luxe desire and the eBay search engine will work to fulfill it.
Art consultant Barbara Guggenheim's new book, Decorating on eBay, chronicles the various ways in which the Internet auction site can facilitate interior design schemes that would take decades to realize via old-fashioned methods such as visiting antiques markets and buying at an auction house. Without eBay, Guggenheim asks, how long would it take to scare up that Noguchi coffee table for your tiki bar or the circa 1939 Catalin radio sure to enhance that Art Deco nightstand by the bed?
A day rarely goes by when I myself am not searching for a Rolex watch from the twenties or a madly chic Goyard suitcase made in the middle years of the 20th century (I'm still gnashing my teeth over a hatbox from 1962 that I lost to a higher bidder). The truth is, compared to real eBay connoisseurs, I remain a rank amateur.
Even as he is speaking to me, retailer, designer, and Midcentury Modern furniture collector Jonathan Adler is typing Bjorn Wiinblad (a Danish ceramist), then Panton (a mod lighting designer), then Hollywood Regency (a retro-glam style from the forties marked by satin drapes and low chairs) into his machine. Adler's not shy when he sees a piece he wants; in fact, he has been known to spend thousands on a single eBay purchase: "It was an Italian Arteluce lamp from the sixties," he admits, "not cheap, but exactly the piece I had been looking for."
With stakes this high, people are hesitant to reveal the tricks of the trade. And everyone has his or her own technique. Adler immediately mentions a tactic known to serious bidders: You deliberately misspell the name of whatever you are looking for in hopes of ferreting out a seller who has made the same mistake. "A friend of mine who collects Bulgari jewelry finds some of her best stuff under 'Bvlgari,' because that's what the logo looks like in the advertising campaign," Adler says.
There's one secret the designer is deeply reluctant to share, but I plead and finally he spills. How—I need to know—is he able to eBay-shop so compulsively while running a retail store and designing three lines? The answer is HammerSnipe.com. For a small fee, HammerSnipe comes in at the last three seconds of an auction—when things get really hot—and bids for you.
For this highly specialized brand of eBay shopper, it's not about getting the great deal; it is about nabbing something (usually pretty quickly) that is unattainable any other way. Constance White, style director of eBay, says fashion editors, the most mercurial of shoppers, depend on the site for items that are hopelessly wait-listed at high-end stores. (Indeed, when Vuitton released its Murakami-designed handbags a few seasons back and it was nearly impossible to score one in the boutiques, the on-site market for them thrived.) At the moment business is brisk for the Fendi Spy bag and the Chloé Paddington, and there's still a lot of action around fringed Balenciaga purses, with the original black version garnering the most attention.
Adler may be willing to have Scandinavian credenzas shipped to him, but White confirms that many eBay shoppers prefer things in smaller packages. "There's been intense bidding on the one-of-a-kind Tony Duquette jewelry," White says.
Literary agent Nick Ellison likes precious metals, too, only his are usually around 300 years old. After numerous trips to Britain, Ellison developed an interest in early-Georgian silver from makers like Paul de Lamerie. Instead of sending out for a Sotheby's catalogue, he began searching eBay. His research paid off. "I bought a 1634 Jacobian silver goblet, made thirty years before the Great Fire of London, from a very reputable dealer," Ellison reports. "I paid about eight thousand dollars and later sold it at auction for twenty-three grand." Since so much of what he buys hails from the British Isles, Ellison has learned how to make the time difference work in his favor: If it's the middle of the night in England, you could well be the only one bidding.
Ellison also participates in the sadistic pleasure shared by eBayers everywhere—"I will wait until the last five seconds and then just crush somebody." But, he says, the real bonuses of the online auction community are far more benign: "The site has led to relationships with dealers and collectors with the same kind of überspecific interests throughout the world." And indeed, without eBay how would a pocket watch enthusiast in Bombay hook up with a kindred soul in lower Manhattan?
Vintage-clothing collector Scott Goble has made friends through eBay, especially with one seller in France who happens to be the exact same size he is. "I got three Dries Van Noten suits from him!" he crows. Horns of envy immediately sprout from my head. Like many other obsessive-compulsive shoppers, I have haunting memories of the one that got away. My last three years have been sporadically spent mourning a Dries Van Noten circle skirt I didn't buy at Barneys; assiduous eBay searching has yet to turn it up, but I hold out hope. For fans of a particular designer—and Belgian vanguard Van Noten appears to attract the fiercest of partisans—eBay can be the only way to indulge a fixation.
Goble recommends that you broaden your search beyond the U.S. eBay. He logs on to the UK, French, and Italian sites to feed his frenzy. "Just last week I got a 1984 Issey Miyake tattoo bodysuit in mint condition from the French site," he says. "The French aren't obsessed with vintage everything like we are." Goble's biggest triumph isn't something he'll ever wear: a mint 1967 metal-mesh minidress by iconic designer Paco Rabanne, the holy grail for collectors of mod clothing, bought for a paltry $500. "I got it from a dealer in Japan," he recalls. "Not long after, a friend sent me a Sotheby's catalog with ten similar dresses. Opening bids were five to seven thousand."
And in the true style of a passionate collector, the game is never over for Goble, even when he loses: "I immediately write the winner and tell them that if for any reason they change their mind or if it doesn't fit, I'll buy it! And every now and then, someone takes the bait."
A VERY DEPARTURES EBAY HOLIDAY WISH LIST
We asked three editors for their eBay Most Wanted. The first request: a pair of 19th-century glass mercury lamps. The immediate reply from Venice, California: "Very sought-after style. Rewired, perfect condition, white linen shades." The starting price was $250, with five bids posted and one day and eight hours left. The second wish: five acres of beachfront property in California. Would a 5.7-acre private island in San Francisco Bay do? It opened at $10 million with 53 days left on auction to decide. Then, a circa 1969-'70 Mercedes 280 SL (brown, please). Done. "Same owner for nearly 25 years." Price: $31,770, with 5 days, 21 hours, and 7 minutes left. How many shopping days till Christmas?
THE PORTERO AFFAIR
My spring-cleaning ritual had been the same for as long as I could remember: stuff a duffel with designer duds I either winced at or could not zip up post-baby, hail a taxi, schlep to the consignment store, haul my loot up two stories, and let them take 50 percent for their troubles. Then I discovered Portero.
Established by former venture capitalist Michael Sheldon and lawyer Daniel Nissanoff, the year-old Portero will dispatch an organizing expert to your home, collect the goods, and put them up for sale on eBay. Portero has the hand-me-downs professionally photographed, writes the blurbs, watches the auction, handles shipping, and then sends you a check. For those with good stuff to hawk but not the time to post it online, it's a dream come true. For me, the process couldn't have been easier (and commission is only 30 percent, less than any consignment store I've ever used).
Where I saw an overstuffed closet, Portero saw an untapped vault. First the dashing Englishman James sifted through my high-heel and chiffon jungle. He carted off 50 pieces. Three days later the items were up on eBay, with slick photos from six points of view and copy so alluring that my lots seemed destined for the Costume Institute. Most things went for way more than the reserve we had decided on (cashmere twinset: $600! Leather knee-high boots: $300!). Note: Portero only deals in luxury goods. It will, however, help remove the more unsellable things (old T-shirts, well-worn shoes) by giving them to charity and mailing you a tax-deduction receipt.
Selling can be arranged through www.portero.com or 877-307-3767.