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Battle Cry of the eBay Warrior

ebaywarrior2 AS I PLEASE

The Internet has turned local historians into treasure hunters. Artifacts that would have taken a lifetime to collect can be found online instantly. Tens of thousands of sellers offer millions of items on eBay every day. But the hunt is not for feint of heart. Bidding takes training, patience and nerves of steel.




It's Worth More When You Fight For It

It's 3 a.m. and I've still got my computer mouse in a death grip. The poor thing's been there, locked in my sweaty paw for hours now. It would take a tiny jaws-of-life machine to pry it free. Five minutes more to go. My body is contorted toward the glaring computer screen, shoulders hunched and frozen. It feels like someone tucked a baseball under my right eyelid. My neck throbs, My butt aches. I haven't had this much fun in ages.

In four minutes and 37 seconds it will be over. Winner take all. Either I will own this authentic 1815 letter signed by Washington's secretary Tobias Lear, or some geek in Ohio will get it. The bidding on is frozen at $57. There's only two of us left in this duel to the death. Or maybe, my opponent has walked away from the invisible auction table.

What's left of my good eye is trained on the timer. Two minutes and 40 seconds to go. I tap RELOAD and -- horror of horrors -- the guy, or maybe the lady in Ohio has upped the ante to $59. But I have pre-loaded a maximum bid of $65 that the computer can automatically bid for me. The screen flashes, and I am back on top at $60.

RELOAD. The bid is holding firm, but at two minutes, my nemesis has plenty of time for a comeback. My left eye begins to flutter and my leg, which went numb hours ago, twitches like a dreaming dog.

What I win, if I win this auction, is a chunk of local history. It will be mine, all mine -- not something archived in a dark impenetrable vault. It's dated October 11, 1815, exactly one year to the day before Lear blew his brains out with a pistol. Perhaps, if I hold this letter in my hand, I will understand why he did it. Perhaps, I’m just rationalizing the joy of the hunt.

But really, I’m not one of THOSE eBay people. I don’t wear the T-shirt or read the eBay books. I refuse to use that pumped up auction software, that gives the user unfair advantage. I am a bare-knuckle eBay sportsman. I know what I want, and I go after it. I am not tempted by tacos shaped like Jesus. I never sell what I buy. The record shows that, in 10 years at this game, I have purchased exactly 322 items, at an average of $10 per unit. Sometimes I hunt for weeks before spotting my prey.

I am searching, primarily, for local history, for items that belong here and have gone astray, for shiny pieces that reflect a missing fact or a lost story. Each forgotten letter or discarded train stub is a piece of the puzzle I have been building for decades. And without eBay, the most powerful research tool in the world, we would all just be picking over junk at a flea market.


It's all about sensation, really, not possession. I am angling for thrills. There is the excitement of tracking and spotting key items among millions hidden online. Then comes the drama of the auction itself, and the satisfaction of building the collection, and eventually, of giving the whole thing away to some museum. I am, after all, a catch-and-release collector.

Currently I am building four collections. The first almost turned me into an addict when I discovered the enormous range of stuff for sale relating to John Paul Jones. I admit, I went a little crazy, at first with Paul Jones books, toys, medallions, bottles, stamps, postcards, portraits and posters. Together they tell an incredible story of America, our need for heroes and our misunderstanding of facts. Jones, who neither drank nor smoked, has been used in advertisements selling whiskey, cigarettes, apples, insurance, medical uniforms, fake scrimshaw, milk, breakfast cereal, dishware, model ships, coin banks, comic books, video games and jigsaw puzzles – not to mention the US Navy.

Currently I also collect stuff related to Portsmouth history, filmmaker Louis de Rochemont, and a few obscure local writers. Today I am angling for that letter by Tobias Lear and – RELOAD -- there is just a minute left.

Suddenly the bid has jumped to over $75, and worse, Mr. Ohio is no longer on the board. Two new bidders have appeared. They must have been camouflaged in the underbrush waiting to ambush me in the final seconds. It has happened to me many times before. You can watch an online auction languish for a week with no bids at all, then see it shoot to hundreds of dollars at the last instant. I have no way of knowing the current leader’s highest bid. The game is on. These new guys appear to be working in Pacific Time, hoping to catch me nodding in the East, but it's not going to be so easy. Yankees can endure untold amounts of boredom and discomfort. We were bred for this game.

It's time to pull out my secret weapon! I've already created a backup higher bid by opening a separate window on my high speed browser. My special Ebay password and User ID were pre-loaded with a new maximum price. I have another, even higher bid in readiness. I know I am mixing my metaphors, but I am too pumped up to care. Earlier my wife taped a message to the computer screen that says "Breathe". I try, but it is not possible.

And I wait. This is what being a man is all about. I tap the RELOAD button methodically every five seconds, watching the clock wind down. The current bid lies motionless with 45 seconds to go. Not yet. I wait. With my partially mangled left hand, I manage a sip of GatorAde from a squeeze bottle. RELOAD. There are 37 seconds left-RELOAD --- 25 seconds left... then.... I strike!

Before you can say "George Washington" I've tapped in a higher offer of $81.50. My hand nearly slips off the mouse, slick with perspiration as the clock ticks down to the wire. RELOAD. My User ID and bid pop up on the screen, obliterating the previous bidder. I can hear the agonized cries as the truth ricochets around the planet, striking my doomed opponents one by one.

3, 2, 1, RELOAD. The blazing red font appears on the screen. "Auction has ended." It's all over. Another Seacoast trophy will be on its way home in a few days by snail mail.

"You are mine, Tobias!" I whisper in the silent dawn, struggling to rise. Peeling my fingers from around the plastic control, I stand, and breathe the sweet stale air of victory.


Copyright © 2007 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved. Robinson is editor and owner of, a popular web portal. He is currently preparing a never-before-seen collection of artifacts for public display in 2008.

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