This group of items (left) acquired through eBay by Archives and Special Collections includes Amherst College tobacco silks (turn-of-the-century promotional items included in cigarette packs), the Prophecy of the Class of 1863 and an Amherst souvenir spoon.
Wild, Wild Web: The Hunt for Amherst on eBay
By Samuel Masinter ’04
Brian Meacham ’97 began collecting Amherst-related books and postcards while he was still an English major at the college. He would travel every weekend to used-postcard shows across New England, becoming fascinated by what he called a “microcosm of bizarre interests.” While Meacham tracked down postcards from Amherst, he would cross paths with collectors searching for postcards of great naval disasters or the ever-popular “ugly babies.” It was a moderate, relatively passive hobby—until 1998, when, a year after graduating, he discovered the mother lode for eccentric hobbies: eBay, the world’s largest online auction house. The pace of his collecting took off after that.
Brian Meacham ’97 contemplates bidding on an item for his own collection of Amherst memorabilia.
Today, split between his apartment and his fiancée’s place, Meacham’s collection has grown to more than 1,000 pieces. They are all in good hands; Meacham has a graduate degree in library science and archival management. Preservation drives his collecting. “I’m interested in keeping the history of the college safe and in one piece,” he says. The collection even has a home of its own on the Web that fed its growth—a place Meacham named Amherstiana.
Meacham, who once worked for the Daily Jolt, a student-oriented Website, created Amherstiana.org to showcase his collection of pins, postcards, signatures and other Amherst ephemera. In the five years since its founding, his Website has attracted more than 9,000 visitors. Scattered throughout Amherstiana.org are some of Meacham’s best catches, and with them, his best stories.
Harold Merrick ’21 was a collector in his own right. Over his years at Amherst, a college then in its first century, he pasted into a leather-bound scrapbook everything he could, leaving a trail of breadcrumbs from the first page (displaying fraternity pledge cards) to the last page: the program of his Commencement ceremony, inscribed “il est fini!!” The book is a treasure trove of minutiae: dance tickets, football schedules, photographs and even a “Schedule of Military Instructions” designed to prepare Amherst students for “the war in Europe.” The book, now in Meacham’s collection, was sold by auction on eBay.
Later, Meacham shifted to collecting signatures from the college’s presidents. By 2000, there was a stubborn hole in his collection: The fifth president, Julius Seelye (1849), was playing hard to get. When Meacham finally found Seelye’s signature on eBay, it was on a document certifying a young man as a member of the Class of 1879. The student, Charles Merrick, might have returned to Amherst years later to see his son Harold graduate. If he did, he sat in Section L, row D. The Commencement ticket stub is taped to the last page of Harold Merrick’s scrapbook.
Not all serendipitous encounters on eBay go so well. As in any auction, the highest eBay bidder wins. In live auctions, this doesn’t cause much of a problem; if one person outbids you, there’s always the chance to up the bid and get the auction back in your favor. On eBay, though, the auctioneer isn’t so forgiving, as auctions run on a timed system: Whoever has the highest bid in at the last moment wins the goods. The problem, though, is that “the last moment” can be a difference of a tenth of a second in the eyes of eBay’s programming. An auction that runs for five days, for example, might not get a single bid until five minutes before the scheduled end time. Then, within the last minute, bids will begin to pour in, and the winning bid might come less than half a second before the auction’s close; after all, why bid early and broadcast to the world that the item has value? It’s a clever bidding strategy called sniping: Bid as close to the end as possible so that whoever is slowest on the draw loses. A 2004 study by a University of Notre Dame professor noted that the median winning bid in an auction is placed after 98 percent of the time has elapsed. It’s a harsh tactic in the eyes of the losing bidders, and whoever wins has to step on a lot of toes to come out in front. “It’s hard to have friends to look out for in the eBay world,” Meacham says. The problem, though, is that you never know whose toes you’re stepping on.
The item was a stuffed purple dog with “Amherst” written on its side. Meacham had never seen anything like the strange purple toy before, so he placed his opening bid. But the purple dog caught the attention of another collector, who began to bid against him. Meacham had seen this collector’s username before, but he didn’t know to whom it belonged. (All bidders on eBay are anonymous, using a pseudonym.) Chances were it was another collector whose path he would never cross again, so Meacham bid aggressively and won the auction. The encounter wasn’t over yet, though. Normally, the two bidders would go their separate ways, neither knowing the identity of the competitor. This was not the case with the purple dog. Just as Meacham had seen his opponent’s username before, so the opponent had seen his. And she knew the user behind the name. After the auction closed, Meacham received an e-mail from Daria D’Arienzo, the head of Amherst’s Archives and Special Collections, explaining that he had, in fact, been bidding against the college itself. The affair, Meacham said, was “an unfortunate experience.”
As cloak-and-dagger as the situation might sound, it was an ultimately friendly exchange. Meacham had worked with D’Arienzo after graduation, and the two kept in touch. Now that he knew the username used by D’Arienzo and John Lancaster, the curator of special collections, he would be careful never to outbid them again. After all, one archivist looks after another.
I first encountered the online hand of Amherst while in my senior year. On eBay, I found an antique ticket for a billiards exhibition at the college and entered into a bidding contest with another hopeful buyer. I upped the ante until it simply was out of my reach, and then dropped out, though some malicious side of me found solace in the fact that I had pushed the bid up so high. It wasn’t until a year later, when the ticket came up in conversation with D’Arienzo, that I discovered that she was the other bidder and that I, like Meacham, had been bidding against my alma mater. (In the end, Amherst didn’t win the ticket auction, either, as the bidding later went beyond the college’s limit). In eBay’s anonymous duels, you never know whom you’ve outdrawn.
In many ways, eBay has been a boon for collectors of Amherst ephemera, but that advantage comes at a price. At first, auctions were a buyer’s market—a chance to buy items cheaper than anywhere else. Postcards, for example, would sell for a dime apiece at antique shows and in eBay’s youth. Now, the same items could pull in a couple of dollars each. The blame, as well as all the praise, for eBay falls on what its programmer originally intended to give the Web: universal access.
Imagine a convention center fully occupied by an antiques show with tens of thousands of items for sale. Now, imagine yourself an Amherst collector. What are your chances of finding what you’re looking for before the day is done? Slim to none. But imagine that convention center as eBay: You could walk in, scream out “Amherst College,” and within a second, every seller with an Amherst item would rush forward to peddle their wares. Now imagine this same antiques show with millions of people each minute calling out the names of the items they desire. In a convention center it would be chaos, but the nature of computers and eBay not only brings all these buyers and sellers together, but also allows them to find each other with remarkable ease: Log onto the Website, type in “Amherst,” and every auction that matches shows up in a neatly organized listing.
This process of pulling buyers together, along with the growing number of people using eBay, has tipped the auction world to the sellers. A dealer has a much better chance of selling an Amherst College postcard now that anyone who’s looking for it will go to eBay, where the item can be found in a matter of seconds. Supply and demand concepts prevail, and prices have skyrocketed. Almost anything on eBay will get a bite if the bait’s enticing, and often the final selling price is greatly inflated. In recent months, a 10-year-old grilled-cheese sandwich bearing what some saw as an image of the Virgin Mary sold on eBay for $28,000.
Inflated selling prices are the result of an economic phenomenon known as the winner’s curse. When an item is placed on eBay, the majority of bidders will estimate the item’s worth close to its actual value, while other bidders will underestimate or overestimate the value and place their bids accordingly. The winner, therefore, will usually be one of the bidders who overestimated the item’s worth and placed a higher-than-normal bid. For a seller, the curse is a blessing—the item always will be sold to the person with the most distorted sense of its value.
One of the best ways to sell something on eBay is to market it to a specialty crowd. Old copies of The Olio, Amherst’s yearbook, sell for roughly $30 on eBay. One seller, though, figured out that by separating the book into pages and selling those with specific fraternity seals on them, a single page could sell for as much as an entire book. The seller capitalized on the fact that fraternities were built-in buyers and the idea that selling something branded by a brotherhood would almost always sell to one of its members. According to D’Arienzo, a few buyers and sellers have made the mistake of thinking Amherst College was a built-in buyer, too.
More than once, D’Arienzo and Lancaster have found themselves being outbid on an item at the last minute, sniped by some unknown yahoo on eBay. A day or so later, the college would get an e-mail offering the newly purchased piece to Archives and Special Collections at twice the price. These buyers assume that Amherst’s deep pockets will supply a guaranteed resale. They don’t. D’Arienzo and Lancaster work on a strict budget, little of which goes to eBay. “Besides,” D’Arienzo explains, “if I wanted to buy it for as much as they asked, I would have bid that much in the first place.”
These “upsells” can easily reach the level of obscenity. One of the college’s claims to fame is being the site of the first intercollegiate baseball game. Any piece of memorabilia from that first game, where Amherst trumped Williams College 73-32, is considered highly collectible by sports history enthusiasts. When a game poster sold for $6,000 to an anonymous buyer, it was offered back to Amherst almost immediately—for $20,000. Fortunately, Lancaster says, “We already had one.” In situations like this, where the seller’s “built-in” buyer fails to materialize, where does his new purchase go? Why not back to eBay?
The why-not-eBay mentality hasn’t helped Archives and Special Collections, either. Someone with a box of Amherst items, who used to see donation to the college’s archives as the best choice, now has the option of offering the items to a seller’s market. The majority of the college’s collection comes from estate donations and alumni who feel, D’Arienzo says, a “fondness and commitment” to Amherst. But altruism sometimes quails at the prospect of profit, and with eBay an option, donations to the college may become less likely. Of course, it could be worse—the seller might not even have possession of what they’re selling on eBay.
Being conned is a constant possibility in the unregulated vastness of eBay. Nobody checks to make sure the person selling an Amherst engraving actually has an Amherst engraving to sell. It’s a matter of trust and established history between buyers and sellers. Lancaster remembers coming across a rare signature on eBay: that of Lord Jeffery Amherst himself. The signature looked real enough and seemed to be in Amherst’s handwriting. It was a small, signed card, dated at the top right corner. Lancaster was suspicious, though, and searched through the seller’s previous auctions. Among the past transactions: the signatures of Thomas Edison and Charles Lindbergh, along with a few contemporary celebrities, all signed on cards of the same size and color. Not everyone is as careful as Lancaster in spotting frauds: The seller’s previous autographs had sold for upward of $500 apiece.
With all of these problems looming over the Web-based auction service, it sounds more like a dark cloud over Archives and Special Collections than a boon. The problems are more or less isolated, though, and, according to D’Arienzo, eBay is actually “pretty fun.”
“We must pay attention to eBay,” she told me, “but it will never replace how we collect.” The Website has become another small tool in the arsenal of the college’s professional collectors, offering an opportunity to find the rare, quirky piece that might never have been unearthed from a pile of throwaway trinkets at an antiques show.
The storerooms of Archives and Special Collections in Frost Library are a dream come true for anyone with a collector’s eye. Carts filled with old photographs, antique mugs and college artifacts line the walls. For this story, D’Arienzo put together a special cart of eBay finds, proudly wheeling it into our interview and unwrapping each piece as if for the first time: a pocketknife from Calvin Coolidge’s presidential campaign, a 1922 Amherst College Christmas card wishing the college’s family well “at the beginning of this, her second century.” Set aside on the cart was a white cardboard box, the kind a small cake might be in. D’Arienzo unfolded its sides to show a thick, frail book of clippings and cards: the scrapbook of G.G.S. Perkins, Class of 1880. In it were dance invitations and college articles—the types of things that Harold Merrick would put in the scrapbook that came to be the prize of Meacham’s collection.
Perhaps the rarest prize that eBay has awarded to the Amherst archivists came from an auction that they lost. Though much of the auctioned lot failed to spark D’Arienzo and Lancaster’s enthusiasm, a single piece of it made the auction a must-win. Like Meacham’s purple dog, this was something that nobody in Archives and Special Collections had ever seen before: the Prophecy of the Class of 1863. “Prophecy fell on the writer, and the future of the men of ’63 was revealed to his eyes. Oh, the potency of spirits,” the author wrote. The predictions were brief and likely inside jokes: “The modest Watkins will be a literary man,” one section reads. “Instead of cheating the world and himself by studying theology, law or medicine, Kimball will settle upon a large farm,” read another. There were familiar names in the document: Tyler, Stone, Chapin and Merrill, though not all of them appear to be directly related to the men who have come to define the campus. Sadly, Amherst lost the auction. When D’Arienzo sent the winning bidder, Bill MacLean, an e-mail asking for a copy of the document, he gladly sent the Prophecy itself. “My family is related to Amherst College,” he said. “Let me send it to you.”
“That’s a real treasure,” Lancaster said, smiling as he handed me the document. “This will always be here—this is a photograph of life.”
As eBay enters its 10th year, its sprawling community has begun to form communities of its own. Meacham, D’Arienzo and Lancaster are higher-volume buyers than most when it comes to Amherst collectibles. As I write this, there are 21 bids on college artifacts in eBay’s auctions. Only two of those bids belong to the three buyers in this article. There is a network of alumni and student buyers who watch out for each other. Meacham might find a rare piece on eBay, refrain from bidding on it himself, and call D’Arienzo and Lancaster to let them know it exists. This sort of friendly help is a godsend in the wild free-for-all of eBay; it’s much easier to browse its streets when someone has your back.
As unregulated and open as eBay is, Amherst’s collectors have settled their own corner of the sprawling auction site. With more alumni collecting and donating their finds to the college, the trinkets and gems of eBay have nestled themselves well into Archives and Special Collections. There’s still plenty of room for collectors, though, and it’s an open market if there’s something out there that catches your fancy. A word of advice, though: With Amherst’s eye on most everything purple and white, you may want to watch where you step.
Photos: Samuel Masinter '04