Advice for Selling Railroadiana Online

This website regularly receives email about selling railroadiana online. For all practical purposes, "online" means Ebay *. Railroadiana collectors have differing opinions about Ebay, but there is no doubt that it has become a major venue for collecting.

If you are considering listing a railroadiana item on Ebay, this page offers some advice. The intent is to provide some practical suggestions to the non-collector from a customer point-of-view. Hopefully these will increase your chances for a good sale with satisfaction all around.

Here are some things to consider when listing a railroadiana item on Ebay:

Describe as much detail as possible. Collectors don't expect you to be an expert in the features of a given item but they do expect accurate descriptions. Details that may seem insignificant to someone outside the hobby may be critical to a buyer, so it is best to err on the side of over-description (See second note ** below). For a list of details that are important to describe when listing a specific type of item, see checklists for selling railroadiana.

Note condition as accurately as possible. Condition can be a critical factor in determining value and should be described as accurately as possible. For metal items such as lanterns and locks, collectors expect a certain amount of wear and even surface corrosion, but rust or damage that compromises the structural integrity of the item can be a serious concern. For china, any damage, e.g., a hairline crack or chip, is a serious concern. For paper, damage such as tears, rusty staples, glue stains, glue remnants, paper loss, or fragility may or may not be a factor in a decision to bid, depending on rarity, age, and other factors. Again, see checklists for selling railroadiana.

Describe authenticity as accurately as possible. The question of fakery is a major concern for collectors, sometimes approaching paranoia. We maintain a number of web pages on known fakes, and these may be helpful with respect to your item. I personally believe that most counterfeits on Ebay are offered innocently by unknowing sellers, but anyone who offers such an item can expect emails from collectors challenging its authenticity. Also consider that a collector may be very willing to buy an attractive reproduction item when offered explicitly as such, but will avoid items that are vaguely questionable so as not to appear naive to his or her fellow collectors.

For some items, their very authenticity as railroad items may be questionable. For example, many tubular lanterns are listed on Ebay as "railroad lanterns" when in fact they are not (more on this). Similarly, generic china patterns are sometimes represented as railroad china when there is no guarantee that a given piece from this pattern was ever used in railroad service. If you're not sure, an honest statement to this effect will help credibility, and collectors will, of course, decide for themselves.

Provide at least one picture. On Ebay, a picture of the item up for bid is optional, but some collectors will not even consider an item without a picture. Shortcomings in the verbal description can be overcome, in some instances, by pictures. If the item has blemishes, corrosion, or damage, pictures of the problem areas are especially important. Obviously, high quality, in-focus pictures provide more information as well as more market appeal.

One experienced collector suggests the following, "If you're going to sell on eBay you need two things-a camera with a macro lens and sunlight. There is nothing more frustrating to a buyer than seeing an item that you're interested in accompanied by a picture that is so dark or small or out of focus that you can't tell what it really looks like.You can pick up a used or refurbished camera for $50 or less. It doesn't need a lot of pixels for eBay pictures. While you can use forced flash for close-ups using the macro setting, I prefer sunlight. I have a Fuji DX-10 which takes it's best macro pictures when the subject is on a light tan background. I take a tan sweater, place it wherever sunlight is coming into the house and shoot. If you want to see the results, I trade on eBay as brasstopbb."

Refrain from polishing or over-cleaning. As a general rule, it's OK to remove dirt and grime from an item, but avoid the use of polishing compounds or abrasive agents to make the item more presentable. The whole issue of restoration can be controversial and depends greatly on the type of item. For example, railroad keys were usually made of brass and developed a beautiful dark patina through use. Polishing a railroad key with a product like "Brasso" would be considered a sin by most key collectors and would degrade the key's value. On the other hand, most lantern collectors would probably approve of polishing the top of a brass-top lantern -- if done well and correctly. Most collectors have stories of seeing items "over-cleaned" with abrasive chemicals and tools like wire brushes. Generally, the original state of a railroad collectible is a "plus" in marketing it and should be left to the buyer to modify.

Set a modest minimum value. Our website gets more questions about railroadiana values than any other topic, but we cannot do appraisals under any circumstances. Please see our page on values. Many factors go into determining value, including condition, minor manufacturing variations, the specific railroad markings, and so forth. For example, items from Colorado narrow gauge railroads command much higher prices than comparable items from other railroads. My personal opinion on values is that there are enough serious railroadiana collectors who regularly monitor Ebay that market forces do a pretty good job of setting fair value. Therefore, there is little harm in setting a low minimum bid on a valuable item -- collectors will bid it up to its market value by the end of the auction. However, a high minimum bid on a common item will be viewed as naive and will discourage those who may be otherwise interested.

One good strategy for setting minimum values is to see what other sellers (the competition) are asking for the same or similar items. Collectors will do the same comparison shopping that they would in any other market, and unless there are "value-added" factors such as exceptionally good condition, lowest price will rule.

Use an informative and descriptive title. Given the thousands of railroadiana items on Ebay at any given time, collectors skim listings and may avoid vague titles like "railroad lantern". Instead, use a more descriptive title like "CB&Q Tall Globe Lantern with Cast Globe". Explore our web site for information that may help you come up with a more accurate title.

By the same token, avoid adjectives like "rare" in the title. Knowledgeable collectors will already know an item's rarity, and novice collectors will suspect a come-on. Sellers regularly list items on Ebay as "rare" when in fact they are not. For example, the title "Rare New York Central Dietz Vesta" -- the most common railroad lantern ever made -- does not help the seller's credibility.

List it in the right category. Ebay provides three major railroadiana categories: Hardware, Paper, and Other. The first two have sub-categories, and the third is really a "miscellaneous" category for things that do not fit anywhere else. Although cross listing is possible, listing your item in the right category and sub-category is important in finding the right audience.

Guarantee it. A guarantee for your items (money back if not satisfied or an error in the listing) is reasonable, given the sums of money involved and the fact that easily overlooked details on your part may be a big factor in value. (See second note ** below).

Be flexible in payment methods. This is more of a personal opinion than other points on this page, but refusal to accept personal checks may discourage bidders. The requirement for some other payment method such as a money order may add significantly to inconvenience if not to cost. The fact is that online auctions, by their very nature, require trust on someone's part -- usually the buyer's -- and even at that, a seller's refusal to accept checks is more a matter of inconvenience than financial risk. Shipment can always be delayed until the check clears. There are some veteran Ebay sellers who accept personal checks from buyers with a significant number of positive feedback responses -- say 25 to 30 -- and this seems like a reasonable balance between risk and convenience.

Pack well. Most veteran collectors have at least one horror story about receiving an item damaged in transit. The issue is not just monetary loss, which can be covered by insurance, but the loss of an historically valuable item that may be rare because either few were made or many have been broken. As one collector put it, "Yes, its one thing to get the money back from the insurance, but all of the insurance in the world won't bring it back once its gone...."

The time honored method of packing is to double-box -- pack the item well in one box, then pack that box with padding within another. For especially fragile items like china, this method is virtually a necessity. For lantern globes, the classic variation on this is the "coffee can" method, whereby the globe is packed (with padding) inside a coffee can; then the can is packed within the shipping box. Incidentally, lantern globes should always be removed from the lantern frame when shipping. Both frame and globe (inside its own can or box) can be shipped in the same larger box but use plenty of packing material. For paper items, use cardboard stiffeners to prevent creasing or bending of the item during transit. For any item, consider that a reasonable amount of over-packing is worth a happy ending to a deal between strangers many miles apart.

Another view of this from an experienced seller: "While it's a good idea to ship a globe in it's own container, it takes additional work. I've shipped well over 200 lanterns over the years and have never had a globe broken. I take three single sheets of newspaper, roll them up and stuff them between the globe and the frame. I also make sure that the lid latches securely. If it doesn't, I tie or wire the lid latch to the frame. I should add that if I have a globe worth more than a couple of hundred dollars I use a coffee can."

Overall, keep in mind that one of the great appeals of Ebay is that it provides a way for non-collectors to make items available that would not otherwise be seen by collectors. It's a real thrill to see a desirable item surface from someone's basement, attic, or estate, so the better the presentation of such an item to the hobby, the better the likelihood of finding enthusiastic bidders ($$$). Desirable Items that are under-described will generate a lot of email questions, so save yourself the trouble and take the time to provide a complete description in the first place.

Good Luck!


* No commercial endorsement of Ebay is implied here.

** I recently relearned this lesson the hard way, despite 20+ years in the hobby. I listed a globe on Ebay and estimated the size of the cast lettering as "an inch high". The globe sold at a nice price and was shipped to the high bidder. Upon receipt of the globe, the buyer emailed me to complain that the lettering was not an inch high but 3/4 of an inch high -- the difference between a rather common globe and an exceptionally rare one with respect to that particular railroad. The buyer was right. Since the mistake was mine, the buyer got a full refund plus postage reimbursement both ways -- an expensive reminder to me that the details matter!

Thanks to Ken Andrews, Mark Rossiter and Rob Hoffer for their suggestions and comments.