Here are some of my thoughts on eBay with regards to wrist watches... Just my ideas and opinions.
The search capability of eBay is excellent. If you are looking for an unusual or hard to find watch, a query to their enormous database of auctions will often turn up something. Hint: click the box "search titles and descriptions," as often the seller will not list the name of the watch, or other of your search words in the title, but they will be included in the text. This widens the search to include not only words in the title, but the entire auction text as well.
Buying anything "mail order" puts the buyer at a disadvantage in that the merchandise can't be physically examined prior to the purchase, or in the case of eBay, the bid. With catalogs or dedicated watch websites, you can usually return the item within three days; with eBay, you usually can't, though some sellers offer this option. Depending on how well the seller describes the item, I will often get more information from them by email. If they cannot or are unwilling to give me more information, I am much less likely to bid on it (unless it's an exceedingly hard to find item, and I feel like taking my chances).
The best sellers will include plenty of information about the watch in the text of the auction, anticipating all the questions you may have. These are people who deal mainly in watches. They may not always give good descriptions, but you're most likely to get the best info from a watch seller. Many general sellers are just auctioning all sorts of things, Barbie dolls, old license plates, and oh, a vintage Rolex, ... Naturally, many sellers don't know much about the watches they are selling, and you can't expect too much. In general, people are nice, and as sellers they want to make a sale and are usually quite happy to help you with whatever you need to know, within reasonable limits. Here are some important points;
- Make sure it's clear how well the watch runs. Not that all watches should run, just that the status should be known if that is important to you. If the seller says "runs well, keeps good time," I usually accept that, though theoretically what this means is questionable. In a vintage watch, it probably means it winds well, hands set well, will run for 24+ hours on a single windup, and will lose or gain no more than 5 minutes a day. Any more than 5 minutes, it's not "keeping time," but that's just my opinion. Some people may be more lenient, others less forgiving., and 5 minutes is totally arbitrary. A "Superlative Chronometer" which loses 15 seconds a day isn't working, but a one-jewel "Sport" wristwatch from 1945 which gains 6 minutes is "ok" with me.
The best sellers will wind and time the watch before auctioning. Unfortunately though some sellers will use phrases like, "I wound it up, and it started ticking away!" or "Ticks loud and strong" or "Seems to run fine." These are all too vague, for me at least. If I have any question, I write the seller and ask him/her to a) wind the watch fully, b) note the time on a reliable clock c) come back 24 hours later and determine how it performed - still running? - how much deviation from real time? Often I am glad I did, because after performing the test, the seller will reply, "I tried it, and the watch ran for several hours, but it's slow," even though their auction said, runs well keeps time, etc.. If there is plenty of time left in the auction and they are unwilling to do this test, or are unhappy at your questioning, assume that the watch does not run well, probably needs servicing of some kind in order to work properly, and bid accordingly. You might be pleasantly surprised when the watch arrives and runs perfect, but at least you shouldn't be disapointed if it's busted.
Sometimes the seller will say things like, "I don't want to wind it up, because I don't know much about watches and I don't want to break it." A common statement is, "it runs and ticks, but I cannot guarantee accuracy." This is an understandable and quite honest statement, but I politely ask the seller to go that extra mile, and perform the simple test to see how it does. One thing the seller fears is telling you the watch does this or that, then when it arrives in the mail, or after you use it for a day, it no longer works, and you want to send it back. This is why they may say something like, "Runs fine and keeps perfect time, but I cannot guarantee the long term running of a vintage watch," or "Runs fine, but will probably need a cleaning." That's ok. They just want to protect themselves, and it makes sense. If I have made up my mind to bid to win a watch (if it seems to me "wrist-worthy,") I will email the seller, tell him up front that I am serious about the watch, but there is some missing data I need. I tell him that if the information he provides meets the threshold, whatever that is, then I will bid on the watch. Generally, they respond, and I always follow though with my intention if the watch is ok (though I don't alway win, but that's another story...)
Bottom line: all watches can have problems, and all will at some point need a cleaning. To me, the key is to find out how well the watch runs now, and if there are any known problems or deficits. With this info, you can make your decision.
- Pictures. I don't know about you, but I would not buy a watch online without knowing what it looks like. Even if it is a famous watch like a Hamilton Ventura, or Rolex Submariner, still, wouldn't you want to see what condition it is in, or what "version" of a dial it has? A minority of watch auctions have no picture, and they rarely get bids. This is not to say that all the pictures are good, as image quality ranges from professional to downright miserable. If it's a clear, sizeable picture of the dial straight on, without a lot of artifact, that's perfect. Pictures of the caseback or the movement are sometimes provided, and this is important in issued Military Watches. I own none, but the caseback markings and movement markings are important. Same might be said about many high grade watches. Fakery can be a real problem, and many bidders are sophisticated enough to be able to spot even a well-crafted fake Military, or fake "luxury" watch. In these cases, the more pictures the better. If the seller displays an angled shot, that is good too as a supplement to see more of the case, but if it's the only picture and I can't see the dial well, I may ask for another one. Often, pictures are small or poorly focused, and you can't see detail. You can miss seeing bad looking dials, scratched cases, missing luminous material, even missing hands altogether on some of the worst pictures. If I am unsatisfied with the picture, I will ask the seller to provide another picture. If they have a scanner or digital camera, they can usually do this. Sometimes they cannot, and then you just have to decide if you want to bid on it. Bottom line: the look of a watch is important to most of us, and you should be satisfied in this respect before bidding.
- Picture Artifacts. Obtaining pictures with scanners often creates incorrect appearances. Silvertone cases can look golden, goldtone cases get washed out and look silvery (common), and dials can have incorrect colors. For some reasons, certain types of dials can reflect back the scanner light and look like they are greenish, pinkish, orangish, etc, when in reality they just may be silvered. If you like the green, then you will be disapointed when the watch arrives. If you hate the green but like the watch otherwise, well, maybe it's just actually nice silvery. A question to the seller will clear it up. The same goes with the case. Be careful with this one, if you are not sure what color the metal is, and they don't say, make sure to ask. I bought a watch once that had what looked like a silvertone case. When I received it, not only was it goldtone, but an awful fake gold banana color. I wrote the seller, and he took it back, with not a small amount of grumbling. He had tried to tone down the electrical banana by electronically manipulating the image, and made it look silver inadvertently. It was a digital fakeout. Sellers may "clean up" digital pictures, by improving contrast, sharpness and brightness with image programs, and I do this all the time. In general, the overall faithfullness to the original image (not necessarily to the watch) will be preserved.
- Case size. The size of the watch is not always apparent on the picture. Sometimes they picture it next to a coin, which helps if you are familiar with the coin. The worst thing is to get a watch which is either gargantuan for your wrist, or too tiny, and I have had both. Closeup pictures can make a watch look bigger than it is. Some watches you more or less know, because of your own experience, but if I don't know I will ask the seller to measure the watch for me. I ask for an across the case measurement, horizontally. Make sure to ask that they do not include the winding crown in the measurement, as that can overestimate it by 10-15 percent. Lug to lug measurements are less meaningful, at least to me. I always ask for the value in millimeters, and some people don't know what a millimeter is, but in general sellers seem happy to provide this information. The best response I got back once was, "I can't find a ruler, but it's between the size of a quarter and a half dollar." I gave her credit for trying and bought the watch and it was fine.
- Case constituency and condition. Gold cases are often gold plated, which is not as good as gold filled or "rolled gold plate," as far as the thickness of the gold over the base metal is concerned. Often the seller may not know, but you can direct them to the outside caseback and maye the info is there. Often the info is on the inside of the caseback, but I don't think most sellers want to open it up (above all, they don't want to break it trying to answer all your questions!) I really like stainless steel cases. Steel / silvery colored cases are either stainless steel, silver (uncommon), or plated basemetal. There are others, including platinum and white gold, but most of mine seem to be either stainless or plate. The plate is usually chrome, and this wears off with time to show the base metal, which is often brass. When the seller says "brassing" this is what is meant. Sometimes chips of the plate come off in chunks. Some have said this can give a nice "vintage" look to a watch. Sometimes I can agree with this, but other times I look at the case of a worn, plated watch and it just looks plain-old bad. Just know what you are getting. Sellers may not be able to tell you for sure what it is, but if it says "all stainless" on the caseback, then that's what it is. More often however it may say, "stainless steel back," and sometimes the seller may advertise it as "stainless steel" but it's only the caseback which is steel. Take a good look at the picture. Steel may not be shiny all the time, but it should have an even look to it without dark areas, chipping or yellow metal areas. Some nice plated cases are beautiful, mint. I will buy either, but I usually like to know what it is first.
- Crystal Condition. Pictures tend to minimize scratches and haziness of crystals. Since replacing the crystal will add to the cost of the watch, I will sometimes try to find out if it's scratched up, cracked up, gouged, etc. I have recently learned how to polish crystals (not very hard,) and if you know how to do this, actually replacing a crystal outright becomes necessary only for the worst ones. In these worst cases, the pictures usually will show the crystal wounds. Doesen't hurt to ask the seller though. Sometimes the crystal is not tightly held by the bezel, and although it is not really in danger of popping off, it turns round and round, or even makes a clicking sound as your move your wrist around in space. This is annoying. Some crystals get yellow with time. Find out about the crystal.
- Movement stability in the case. You may get a watch, and as you move it around in a normal fashion, it clicks and makes noises. This is usually the sound of the movement rattling around in the case. Often a metal ring or supporter is missing inside, allowing the movement to wiggle a bit. This is also very annoying, and can't be "good" for the watch. I recently received a beautiful Octo watch, nearly perfect in every way, but it rattles in a most aggravating manner. The seller never mentioned it, and I never asked. I got it fixed. Beware of rattle.
This may seem like a lot of questions to ask from the seller, and you may encounter some sellers who don't want to be bothered with your questions. Though I don't ask about every detail, every time, I believe that there are few bad questions. Remember, there is no regulation of the auction, and most importantly there is no required "standard" format for the auction texts. The seller is free to include (or exclude) whatever info he/she wants. eBay really doesen't care if you like the watch or not, just that the auction goes through. If the text is meager, or concentrates largely on payment and shipping details, and assorted disclaimers, rather than the item which is being sold, get the details first to avoid disappointment.
- Be careful with a seller who has 500 active watch auctions, and every single one of them has the same exact generic description for each, such as, "Awsome watch, mint condition, runs excellent," with a picture, but no other specific information on the watch. As a seller, going through a whole bunch of watches to put up for auction must be a pain in the neck, but that's no reason to put the same line-item description for each one. They can't all be that "mint" or "awsome"...
BIDDING AND PRICES
The seller wants the auction to end at the highest possible price, and buyer wants the lowest price. There is no secret about this. I have no idea of the value of most watches, and people will quote "book" prices for various watches. This has merit for those who collect for investment purposes certainly, or specialty niche waches like Military, but for those who collect ordinary watches for fun, it seems to be that a watch price is "whatever you are willing to pay for it." There is a lot of variablity in pricing on auction. The most confident sellers will auction their watches in true auction format, with no "reserve" and low or modest starting prices. They know that their product is of high quality, their descriptions are excellent, their reputations as sellers are excellent, and that their item will sell for "auction-market value" These sellers will put a Rolex bubbleback in fine working condition at a dollar to start, because they know it will go up tremendously in price. Bidders will find it.
There is a lot to be said about how to win an auction at a good price, and hopefully soon I can add to this page, to update with some experiences of my own, and those of others.