Not that many years ago, if you wanted to enjoy the pleasures of playing a vintage guitar, you had to haunt pawnshops, comb the inventory of mom-and-pop music stores, and pore over endless classified print ads. Then along came eBay and everything changed. Today, virtually everyone who wants to sell a guitar—even a brick-and-mortar store—lists it on public internet auction sites. The result is that almost every guitar for sale in the world can be seen on your screen, and the potential buyers are practically limitless. If you are not already addicted to online guitar auctions, here is a pragmatic introduction to navigating this brave new world of musical commerce.
What Kinds of Online Guitar Auctions Are There?
Online guitar-auction sites consist of three basic types. One class involves professional auction houses that have specialty departments handling vintage musical instruments (e.g., Skinner Auctioneers in the U.S. or Gardiner Houlgate in the U.K.). These operate much like live auctions, with timed events during which subscriber participants compete. Sales can be national or international, with associated costs. Offerings are limited to the house’s inventory and the number of bidders is restricted.
Another type of auction is national or regional, as in only held in Korea, Vietnam, or the E.U. These are public auction sites similar to eBay, where anyone in the country can list a guitar and anyone within that country can bid. As far as I’m aware, Buyee in Japan is the only country-specific site designed to handle international bidding/buying. (Buyee is actually an intermediary for Japan’s Yahoo Auctions.) Merchandise won is shipped by the seller to Buyee’s Osaka warehouse, where it is then reshipped to you, arriving in four to six days, or six weeks or more, depending on the shipping method you choose.
In addition to the special case of Buyee, the third and most accessible type of site involves public auctions that are open to virtually anybody and feature the broadest spectrum of used and vintage guitars: eBay.com, the world’s largest general merchandise auction site, and Reverb.com, dedicated to music gear. (Note that many guitars are co-listed on both eBay and Reverb, often for different prices.)
How Do Online Guitar Auctions Work?
Taking part in these public auctions is easy. You register your user name and email address and then set up a payment method, using either PayPal (allowing use of both bank account and credit card; highly recommended) or just a credit card. You can start bidding immediately.
There are a number of variations on a guitar auction. The simplest is a “no reserve” auction. The seller puts a starting price on a guitar and agrees to sell it for whatever it ends at. The starting price might be low, say $9.99. Or it might be at market value, e.g., $1,200. A starting price that’s higher forces you to decide whether you really want to pay that much or not. If it’s a fair market price, go for it. You’ll likely have less competition and you’ll kick yourself in the morning if you don’t.
While starting the no-reserve auction very low can be risky for the seller, it often sparks a bidding frenzy that can result in a much higher sale price. The low-start bidding frenzy works by hooking bidders on the desire to get that guitar for a bargain price. That desire then transforms into a burning need to win with an irrational, vigorous defense no matter the cost! Bidding frenzies are common and real. It’s a good idea to decide—and stick to—your limit before getting caught up in the frenzy phenomenon. Tell yourself that it’s OK to let a guitar go if the price gets too high.
In a reserve auction, the seller lists the guitar at a low price (e.g., $0.01) but will not sell it until the auction reaches the reserve price (e.g., $450). This protects the seller’s investment in the guitar while hoping to ignite a bidding frenzy, which rarely happens. Bidders tend to be way more cautious on reserve price auctions. No one wants to be first to hit the reserve price because that tells everyone else what they might have to pay to get the guitar, greatly reducing the possibility of a bargain. Reserve auctions tend to have a flurry of bids in the final moments. The best way to win one of these is to honestly ask yourself how much you’d really pay, bid your best number right at the end, and take your chances. Hey, if you don’t win, another will always show up.
Buy It Now (BIN) auctions are a kind of hybrid. The price can start lower or higher but the seller offers an option—usually at a healthy price premium—to click a BIN button, ending the auction and paying the asking price. If you know what a guitar is worth and really want it, BINs can be the least anxiety-producing auction. Just pay the tab and be done with it. The guitar is yours!
Or Best Offer (OBO) auctions provide the option for you to offer a lower bid than the current asking price. If a seller offers OBO, he or she is willing to take less by definition. But don’t get too greedy. The seller still has to make some money. Offering 50 percent less can be insulting. Offering around 10 percent less might result in acceptance, or at least a counteroffer. If the seller has a reasonable shipping cost, offering the asking price less the shipping amount is often a successful strategy. (The seller may be able to deduct the shipping as a business expense at tax time.) Even without OBO, you can always contact any seller and politely ask if a lower price would be entertained. It’s not unusual for a seller to agree to lower the price, especially if the guitar has been for sale for a while.
Japanese Buyee/Yahoo auctions feature a unique, convenient Snipe function that lets you enter a bid in advance that will be placed five minutes before the auction closes. That still leaves plenty of time for counterbids, so be sure to enter your true maximum.
Auctions typically run from three to nine days, though they can be shorter or can be relisted any number of times. As a bidder, you don’t know if a guitar will be relisted or not, so if you want it but are on the fence, take the plunge. Once you’ve won an auction you will be expected to pay for it, usually within three days.
How Much Should You Bid?
When you put down an auction bid, you’re morally obligated to honor your commitment. Before you bid, you should balance the guitar’s value against the total final costs. You may be able to get a quick read on value with the price-guide function on Reverb or by narrowing an eBay search to sold auctions. If you are considering expensive guitars, invest in Vintage Guitar Magazine’s annual price guide or subscribe to the online Blue Book of Guitar Values. A Google search should turn up some current dealer inventory.
Your final costs on American public auctions will be the end-price plus shipping, which on guitars can usually range from $35 to $100, unless the seller offers free shipping. International sellers can cost more. If you’re looking at Buyee in Japan, keep in mind that you’ll pay the end price plus taxes and a percentage transaction fee (about $50 on a $250 guitar) and then shipping, which can run $150 or much more, depending on the size and weight of the packaging. I’ve gotten Japanese classical guitars on Buyee for $27 that cost close to $200 after all fees were calculated.
What If There’s a Problem?
The majority of guitar auctions go smoothly, but occasionally problems come up. The best thing you can do to prevent problems is to be vigilant. Problems are most common when you make assumptions. Look for very detailed descriptions and read every word carefully. Look really closely at all the pictures. If the slightest detail raises a question, ask the seller about it before you bid. Not sure if a case is included? Ask. As a potential buyer, you have the right to inquire about known repairs or if any parts have been replaced, all affecting the investment value. If you’re not satisfied with an answer, move on. If you buy a guitar without due diligence and there was no deliberate seller misrepresentation, you have little legitimate recourse. Anyone active in auctions has made this mistake a time or two, by the way!
Accidents do occur in shipping, although there’s been a remarkable improvement among shipping companies in the last few years, no doubt due in part to the large quantity of guitars now travelling around the world. If a guitar arrives damaged, immediately take lots of pictures of the item and packaging. Inform the seller, sending pictures. Always be polite! The seller will likely claim no responsibility and blame the shipper. The shipper will likely claim poor packaging, blaming the seller. If the damage is repairable and you really want the guitar, the seller might give you a partial refund. Sites such as eBay will arbitrate a claim. If the seller is deemed liable, you’ll return the guitar and get a refund. If the shipper is guilty, good luck.
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On rare occasions, a seller may misrepresent a guitar, either deliberately or, more likely, out of ignorance—a guitar found in grandpa’s attic or at a yard sale sold by someone who has no clue about guitars (and you didn’t ask). Some sellers allow returns or may offer a full or partial refund. Auction host sites have procedures for handling complaints and will arbitrate. Prepare to document your case extensively and persuasively. If you have a good case, you are likely to prevail. Auction sites such as eBay are tilted toward protecting the buyer.
Sites like eBay, Reverb, and Buyee all employ feedback as a metric for sellers (eBay rates buyers, as well). This method allows you to award a number of stars and leave a brief text message. For eBay, sellers are expected to have 100 percent favorable five-star ratings in order to keep selling, so feedback can have a direct economic effect on someone’s livelihood. Feedback should be approached with gravitas. If an auction concludes satisfactorily, leave excellent feedback. Negative feedback should only be given if the seller has been a complete jerk and all avenues of appeal have been tried. In cases where I was dissatisfied but there was no obvious deception (I didn’t ask enough questions), I just choose not to leave feedback at all, neutral being better than negative.
Buying guitars on public auction sites lacks the romance of the good old days when you had to ferret out treasures from want ads and pawnshops. Then again, online auctions literally bring a whole world of guitar choices right to your doorstep. If you want to enjoy the pleasures of playing a vintage guitar, this brave new world of online auctions is a golden age.