The Savvy Consumer’s Guide To Pre-Owned, Collectible, And Vintage Cameras; The eBay Follies: A Cautionary Tale

This month we begin a new column with renowned "camera collector" Jason Schneider. Jason will be out there scouring camera stores, Internet sites, and camera shows to bring you the best bargains in user collectibles, recent gems, and vintage gear.

Is there a camera enthusiast on the planet who hasn't pored over the voluminous and fascinating listings on eBay, the world's largest online auction site? The sheer volume of cameras listed is intoxicating, as are the pictures and verbal descriptions, which vary from exquisitely sharp and knowledgeable to tantalizingly inconclusive.

To find out what really gives on eBay these days, I decided to check out the listings for one of my favorite classic camera categories--rangefinder Leicas. What I discovered after gazing transfixed at my 15" flat screen for four hours is that the ancient Roman dictum caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) should probably be a mandatory part of the eBay logo. Why? Because if you get toasted by a seller, it's unlikely that eBay will be able to extricate your chestnuts from the fire. And while the vast majority of eBay sellers are honest (there are rules, a rating system, and bad guys get banned), there are enough shady or simply uninformed sellers out there to make things a lot riskier than dealing with a reputable camera store. Sellers generally have an easier time on eBay. They run the risk of selling to deadbeat buyers, but they can protect themselves in various ways, such as demanding payment in advance or using PayPal, now part of eBay.

Are there good buys on eBay? Well, most old eBayers will tell you it was much better back in the old days (that is, the mid-90s), but there are surely bargains still to be had. Example: A Leica M3 in excellent condition with double-stroke wind and "slight scuffs" on the body went for $415 after 16 bids. Assuming that nothing else was amiss, this is about $460 below the typical retail price.

Other good buys in rangefinder Leicas: IIIf red dial (the penultimate screwmount model) in excellent condition at a mere $247.50 (about $300 below retail), another IIIf red dial with "minor cosmetic flaws" at $202.50, and Schneider's Collector Coup of the Day, a double-stroke M3 in excellent condition with 50mm f/2 collapsible Summicron for $541, about $630 below retail (Note: There were only three bids made on this gem!). Of course, and this is the kicker, the buyers may find, when they receive their prizes, that there are concealed mechanical defects, and/or the cosmetic condition doesn't quite meet their expectations (or accord with the posted description). In such cases, the buyer could send the camera back, but the seller is under no obligation to refund the money except in cases of gross misrepresentation. Even when this happens, eBay's enforcement powers are essentially limited to revoking the seller's eBay registration.

If you want to try eBay camera surfing yourself, please note that I found all the prices listed earlier, and those that follow, in the completed auctions listings--the only place to go if you want to find actual selling prices for items on eBay. Buy It Now prices posted on active auction listings are also a good indication, because they're prices the seller will accept before any bids are received. High or low bids that are posted for auctions still in progress are "pie in the sky" until the auction is actually over. To access completed auctions, you must sign up to become a member of eBay, a painless process that is free of charge.

Okay, now that I've whetted your appetite with some pretty good deals, let's take a look at some that will make you laugh or cry. Example: A "mint" Leica M5 with 50mm f/2 Summicron went for $1499, with only one bid. It's a nice user camera all right, but not in the same esthetic or collectible class as an M2, M3, M4, or M6. Besides, since there was no reserve price set on this item, the buyer could probably have gotten a much better deal, like the guy who bought the "near mint" M6-TTL with 0.85x viewfinder for $1345.

The Oops, Forgot That award goes to the seller of a clean Leica IIf (no slow speed dial) #711734 in original case who neglected to mention the included 35mm f/3.5 Summaron lens, so the buyer did quite nicely at $387.16. The Riverboat Gambler award goes to the buyer of the "Clean Leica IIIf with pinhole in shutter curtain and `whacked' 50mm f/3.5 Elmar with dent on rim and blems in glass" for $159.27. Tied for Pity The Poor Seller award are the owners of a clean Leica IIIc with a starting price of $9.95 and an "excellent plus" IIIf red dial with 50mm f/3.5 Elmar starting at $375, neither of which received a single bid.

Finally, I hereby confer the Poor S.O.B. Crown Of Thorns on the US buyer of a "Clean Leica II with 50mm Elmar #215033" for $98.35--there were 16 bids. He should have gotten his first clue from the location of the seller--the Ukraine. Even on my small screen, it was evident that this was a Russian-made FED (a mediocre Leica copy) with phony nameplates--worth about $40 on the outside. Indeed, there was a plague of "Leicafied" FEDs on eBay's rangefinder Leica listings, but almost all sellers had the decency to list them as "copies" or "replicas." As I said, caveat emptor--there is simply no good substitute for physically examining a used camera before you buy it, or buying it from a reputable dealer with full return privileges. By all means, check out eBay--it's a lot of fun--but don't get sucked in.

Deal Of The Month

The Ultimate Entry-Level 35mm AF SLR: Canon EOS Rebel 2000 With 28-80mm f/3.5-5.6 Lens $99.99 in E+ condition

This broad-spectrum camera can be operated as a point-and-shoot by novices, but has enough features and performance to satisfy a real enthusiast, and makes a great film backup for Canon EOS digital SLR shooters. It's small and light, provides seven-point AF, 35-zone AE metering, 11 shooting modes, and a full range of basic features, including shutter speeds to 1/2000 sec, depth of field preview, scale-metered manual exposure, evaluative and partial metering, AE bracketing and multiple exposure capability, and full-info finder read-outs in finder and on top-mounted LCD. In terms of features per dollar it's a phenomenal value at under $100 with short zoom lens.