How To Buy Antiques on eBay

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The authors' eBay finds include this antique enamel Chinese incense burner.

The authors' eBay finds include this antique enamel Chinese incense burner.

We still feel bad about sniping Minimu's wedding dress. We didn't mean to grab it. But the dressmaker we had hired to make Celine's gown had already missed two deadlines, so Celine set forth the decree: "Log on to eBay. We're getting a wedding dress tonight."

Minimu was a toughie. We put in a bid. She countered. We countered. Then, seconds before the auction closed, we put in an exceptionally high bid. Celine wore the dress on our wedding day.

Wedding dresses and old houses have a lot in common. They're unique, expensive, and you don't buy them that often. The same can be said for all sorts of things —from Arts & Crafts light fixtures to peacock wallpaper—that we've purchased for our 1903 transitional Shingle-style Victorian on eBay.

Yet dealing with eBay—or any Internet auction site—is something of a gamble. Although it offers untold millions of items and can create unprecedented opportunities to find pieces that would have been almost impossible to unearth just a decade or so ago, eBay also can plunge the average user into a gambling hell equal to anything that can be found on the Vegas strip.

Take our lavender toilet. On a visit to the Washington, D.C., salvage store The Brass Knob, we purchased a 1940s sink that was the perfect shade of lavender to match the roses in the accent tile in our master bathroom. Which meant that we needed to find a toilet that was the same perfect shade of lavender. And so the eBay search began.

This burly bronze horse was purchased for $1 and shipped for close to $100.

This burly bronze horse was purchased for $1 and shipped for close to $100.

Apparently the ghost of Minimu lurks in eBayspace, waiting for her revenge. And she got it. Who would have thought someone else would be looking for a lavender toilet? But they were—and they got the one we wanted, for just $1 more than our top bid. Still, eventually, we found another. We won our toilet for such a reasonable price that the wooden crate to hold it cost almost as much as the device itself.

No room in the house has required more visits to eBay than our kitchen, a space that was originally part laundry room and part food preparation area. Our kitchen design is essentially a work of fiction—one that reaches across eras and decades, and therefore involved lots and lots of online auctions. Perhaps the biggest catch—and the best eBay story—was our Kelvinator FoodaRama. The Kelvinator was the first full-featured side-by-side refrigerator ever produced. It hit the market in 1955, and was the Cadillac of cooling devices for its time.

Antique refrigeration devices of any kind are relatively rare on eBay, but FoodaRamas are truly an endangered species. But with ongoing encouragement from Celine, I began the hunt. We finally found one, which the listing claimed had been only used by a Michigan widow on weekends to cool cans of frozen orange juice mix.

This painting of a dog—in an elaborate frame—bears a strong resemblance to the authors' late pet.

This painting of a dog—in an elaborate frame—bears a strong resemblance to the authors' late pet.

We bid, thinking not many people would be interested in purchasing such a beast from the middle of nowhere. Once again, the spirit of Minimu intruded, and we got sniped—someone outbid us at the last moment.

Feeling depressed and defeated, I didn't bother to visit eBay for several weeks, which turned out to be a superb strategy. The person who outbid us ended up dropping out, so the owner offered us the Kelvinator at the top price. When I failed to respond, he lowered it. By the time I checked the site again, we were able to get it at 40 percent off.

As we've completed various projects in our house, our need for eBay has declined. The fact that so many places on the net offer a multitude of specialty products also has drawn us away from the massive auction site. But we have no doubt we'll continue to need that one weird thing—and we know the best place to go to find it. Even if Minimu's cyber ghost is still pursuing us.

Tony and Celine Seidemanare working to restore their 1903 Peekskill, New York, home one historic tile, light fixture, refrigerator, roll of wallpaper, and stove at a time.