Itching to Buy on the Virtual Flea Market

Need an IDF tank turret sight or a Netanya necklace? Click on eBay.

Moty Sender of Netanya might have deduced that the situation of the jewelry store he runs with his wife - designer Billy Shmerling - would not improve during these years of recession. But a few years ago, he might at first have found it hard to conceive of their jewelry being displayed in a saleroom alongside Kurt Cobain's boyhood home, a motorcycle that bears the autographs of dozens of Hollywood celebrities, and even the Ford Granada that appeared on the cover of the album "Belle and Sebastian" in 1973.

The technical developments of recent years have, however, opened their way to such unexpected possibilities. During the past three years the Senders have devoted many hours a day to auction their products on the Internet sales site eBay ( and have earned the status of "power seller" - a ranking that testifies to thousands of sales carried out successfully within a given time period.

Last week eBay published a report of its activities during the past year. The figures astonished all those who had eulogized the new economy. The company ended the first nine months of the year with an income of over $800 million and a net profit of $162 million.

Despite the dot-com crash and a year of world-wide recession, the company's income doubled compared to the previous year.

The eBay Internet company began in 1995 as a site for collectors who wanted to trade used and esoteric items. It is difficult to believe, but the most popular items then sold on the site were empty Pez dispensers between collectors.

However, in a short time and driven by huge demand, the site also began to sell computers, electronic goods, books, recordings and anything for which there is a supply and a demand. During the past year, about 3 million items were offered for sale at the site. The 20 leading sellers offer 72,000 items and the 38,000 largest sellers are offering 2.7 million items.

To date, a total of about 20 million buyers and sellers have been registered by the site. Since it was founded the sales method has remained the same - eBay takes 2.6 percent of the price of every item advertised on the site for itself.

Also maintained to this day are the community methods that afford meaning to the term "global village." Every seller gets feedback from the buyer, and this is published on the site. Each buyer and seller has a short history page, and participants can add their impressions to it - has the seller exaggerated his description of the item, did the item arrive on time, was it well-packaged and so on.

Only once was the price of the freedom of trade in the global village tested. On February 20, 2000, the German branch of the site announced that it was stopping the public auction of an item. An anonymous seller had offered a kidney for sale, which could be obtained in Zurich.

The opening price was $100,000, and within two days it had doubled. The seller presented himself as a 38-year-old male who neither smoked nor drank, and demanded that the buyer bear all the costs of the transplant and the medication.

The bargaining process was halted and the managing director of the German site, Joerg Rheinbolt, declared that the auction would not be carried out, mainly because both the sellers and the buyers were concealing themselves and therefore it was impossible to follow them closely - but also because "our conditions of use spell out very clearly what may and may not be traded."

According to the conditions published at the site, the management prohibits the sale of drugs and medicines, firearms of any kind, government identification documents and licenses, human parts and remains and credit cards. They also refuse items sold by links to web sites that offer to trade, sell or purchase goods or services outside of eBay.

Nevertheless, under certain circumstances it is possible to sell at the site harmful items of various sorts such as cold weapons (non shooting), and old propaganda materials. It is also possible to trade in batteries, foodstuffs, plane tickets and autographs. (See box).

Buying cheaply

The Israeli community at the site is not very large yet and most of its participants, predictably, know exactly what their fellow traders on the page are selling. Most of them can point to the leading traders in various areas, and all of them devote at least two hours a day to this commercial hobby of theirs.

Eli Heller, a fitness room instructor, sees buying and selling via the site as a harmless hobby. "I entered the site and I discovered that it was possible to buy items I was looking for cheaply there. I bought sunglasses there twice at very low prices, and another time I bought a pulse meter there at a price lower than the one I was accustomed to pay, even after a large discount."

Heller says: "All the brands are sold at the site at worthwhile prices, from small electronics to clothing, and everything I have ordered has been delivered to me within 10 days." Heller also found himself selling items through the site: "I owned some discs of old Israeli musicals like `Fiddler on the Roof' and `Hair.' My reserve price was $5 a disc and I got up to $20."

Eli Natan, who owns a shop for used records and discs, is a regular seller at the site. Natan defines eBay as a "a virtual flea market" where everything is sold, and at reasonable prices.

"I began to visit the site three years ago," he says, "and I realized that collectors were interested in old records. But this is a problematic field. The moment I offer a rare vinyl record and its price goes up, other sellers who have a copy of the record also come in and offer it too."

Natan has sold the Israeli version of "Les Miserables" to collectors. "I sold it for $70, and now it is worth $155." The rarest Israeli record at the site is the vinyl disk of "The Churchills," and "it is always expensive, because it is always scarce," says Natan. "I've sold the record of `The Churchills' on the site several times, and its price went up to $1,200, but that's very rare."

Sender from Netanya spends most of the day at the site. E-mail sent to him is answered within minutes and most of his commercial connections are carried on in the afternoon hours with the United States. "The fact that jewelry from Netanya is sold in Chicago without having to fly and set up meetings, is characteristic of life and work with the Net," he says. "The ties are mostly through e-mail, and I feel there is also a community life around the trading. Ever since the intifada began we have been getting a lot of mail from American Jews, customers of ours, who ask about how we are after every terror attack. Commercial ties have also begun that have developed beyond buying and selling. This is an excellent solution for a small place like ours."

Tank binoculars and rifle sights Despite eBay's serious prohibition on the sale of firearms of any sort, one can count on Israelis not to give up any business opportunities that come their way. It is enough to type the letters IDF (Israel Defense Forces) into the site's search engine to find the following items - night sights for rifles (Galil, Nimrod and M-16), batteries for weapons, M-16 rifle parts, tank batteries and even tank turret binoculars that are focused from inside.

All of these are sold alongside shirts, hats, pins and magazines that bear the IDF stamp. One of the largest traders in IDF items at the site uses the commercial name "antique2u." According to initial correspondence with the owner of the nickname, his real name is Boaz Tannenbaum and he runs his business from Israel. Tannenbaum refused to be interviewed for this article but in e-mail correspondence he said the company he owns "buys and sells items from around the world, including from the IDF."

The items for sale are accompanied by amateur photographs that show a tank battery standing proudly on the tiled floor between the kitchen and the living room in a typical Israeli apartment.

The sale of weapons parts, at prices of hundreds of dollars for each item, is particularly notable in the context of the security situation and the accessibility to the site that is open to everyone, as well as the campaign the IDF has been holding in recent weeks for the return of equipment. Judging by the lively trade at the site, it does not appear that the sellers intend to stop dealing in this equipment in the near future.

The following reaction has been received from the IDF spokesperson: "The IDF does not sell weapons to private individuals in any way. The national unit for the sale of surplus equipment and weapons that have been made obsolete from the IDF is not familiar with the site and does not work with it in any way. As the IDF cannot impose its authority on civilians, the matter should be dealt with by the police."