Thursday, February 11, 2010

Not On eBay! by Allison Bartlett

Although theft has always been a threat to rare book dealers, in the past century, nothing has made it easier for thieves to sell their ill-gotten goods than the Internet. In all my conversations with Ken Sanders, the only subject that riled him as much as news of a recent theft was eBay. It's not only hot property that shows up on that website, but fraud of all sorts, he says. Even sellers with honorable intentions don't necessarily know a first edition from a book club edition.- some don't even know a first edition from a later edition. Others know perfectly well, but are out to swindle naive buyers.

"A woman here in the valley called me up," said Sanders, "and she says, 'I just purchased an autographed Catcher in the Rye on eBay for fifteen hundred.' And I stopped her right there. I said, 'Look, I don't want to see this book, I don't want you to bring it to my store. It's no good, it's a fake. You got taken. Go get your money back.' You cannot buy any kind of real J.D. Salinger-autographed book for ten times that, let alone The Catcher in the Rye. "Look", I said, "why do you think that of the hundreds of sophisticated collectors and booksellers out there, you would be the lucky one? It's one of the most desired and difficult twentieth-century autographs to get- on the most desired book. Of course its not a first edition! Because forgers aren't going to ruin a valuable first edition. They're going to pick a worthless edition and put an autograph on that."

"Any law enforcement person will tell you eBay is the largest legalized fence in the universe." Sanders said. I called a computer systems security analyst named Mark Seiden for a less impassioned opinion, but he echoed Sanders almost word for word, saying "eBay is the largest legalized fence of stolen property in the world" He said that eBay has avoided liability because they are not technically auctioneers, since there is no person hosting, no physical space where the auctions are held. They say they are a marketplace, period. But however legal that business is, the fact is that unscrupulous sellers flourish there.

Ironically, one of the reasons people are getting cheated on eBay, according to Sanders, is the practice of providing certificates of authenticity. "As far as I am concerned, no legit book dealer or autograph trader that I've ever known in my life would offer a certificate of authenticity. That's a a warning bell right there, the mere offering of one. It's what allows predators to be so successful and grow so large."

Sanders told me that several years ago he and his Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America colleague Ken Lopez met with representatives of eBay, suggesting strategies to combat fraud, to no avail, "We wasted nine months in negotiations with eBay. They never followed a single suggestion. They kept stringing us along, but never changed a single thing."


  1. 'The Man Who Loved Books Too Much; The True Story of a Thief, A Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession" by Allison Hoover Bartlett; Riverhead Books, 2009

  2. see the last couple of comments here:

    for a tally of the obits for J.D. Salinger who died last month at the age of 91.