Adventures on eBay

Art Consultant Barbara Guggenheim Takes on the Challenge of Furnishing a House Online

Just when I’d finished constructing and redecorating our house in Los Angeles, my husband, Bert, came home with the news that he’d bought the Malibu beach house we’d been coveting for years. Another year of antiques shops and fabric stores and searching for bath fixtures was more than I could bear. With a full-time job and family responsibilities, I’d run out of steam, not to mention time. No antiques shop, flea market or even Bloomingdale’s is open at 10 at night, when I was available. Then I thought, What about eBay? As an art consultant, I’d long been pessimistic about the prospects of buying serious art online. But I wasn’t looking for serious art, and, desperate, I was ready to try.

The house, a Cape Cod-style cottage, came with a few basic pieces of furniture, including a pine cabinet with a plate-rack top. Though it occupied a big space in the dining room, it also created a serious problem. How was I going to fill five 12-foot shelves? OK, I thought, here goes. I went onto eBay and typed “ironstone” in the search field. What came up was amazing. Within a month we successfully bid on hundreds of pieces—bowls, pitchers, gravy boats and enough plates to serve 24.

In the process, my husband became an addict. One day, when our bids for a soup tureen were repeatedly topped by “Ironstone Ike,” Bert asked if we could send an e-mail to our rival. “Tell him if he tops our bid one more time, we’ll spend the rest of our lives outbidding him on every object he tries to buy.” “Calm down,” I said. “That can’t be legal.”

One night Bert suggested that we find an antique ship painting for the living room. My eyes rolled. But having scored with ironstone, I entered “old ship painting” and hoped for the best. Eight works came up, one more gruesome than the next. Bert picked one he liked, undeterred by my observation that it didn’t look old. I placed a low bid, hoping we wouldn’t get it. Of course we did. Sometimes sellers send personal notes explaining the provenance of your purchase, such as, “My grandfather carried this vase in his arms all the way over from Russia.” The owner of the “old ship painting” wrote: “ I am so glad you got my painting. I just finished it last night.”

Antique oil lamps, tablecloths, pillowcases, candlesticks, rugs and silver followed.

I may be a veteran now, but I still have a moment of angst when an eBay package arrives.

My most disappointing moment came over a sailor’s valentine I intended to hang in the entrance hall. It looked quite splendid on my computer screen, filled with tiny shells, hearts and bows. When I opened the box, it was only an inch in diameter. Still, it was my fault for not having looked closely at the description and dimensions.

Then there was my foray into sock monkeys. With their wide red smiles and floppy arms and legs, they make me laugh. As I scrolled down all the selections on eBay, I was sure that there was a connoisseurship to sock monkeys, but it eluded me totally. I couldn’t tell good from bad, old from new, but I didn’t care. I liked them all.

One thing about eBay: It’s easy to get sidetracked. In a search for quilts and blankets, I stumbled onto Indian saddle blankets. Before I knew it, I owned two and realized I was way off course. Still, if Bert ever comes home saying he’s bought a house in Santa Fe, I’ll be ready.

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