|Trapdoorspider feared it would be a close race. Squinting into the monitor, he clicked on the bid history, leaned back in his chair, and whistled. "So, kellybaby.com has already dropped in, and now here's tcb2000 with the big money," he thought. "Well, now it's my turn."
He was weary. It was almost 3 in the morning, and he had been waiting five long days for this moment. A glance at the counter showed just two minutes left, so he quickly typed in 26.00, clicked "Place," and leaned back and waited. Thirty seconds passed, then 40, then 50, and trapdoorspider began to smile.
"It's mine," he thought. "I actually beat them!"
Just 30 seconds remained when the alert "You've got mail!" pulled him up straight. "This can't be," he gritted his teeth. "Not after all this!" He pulled up the message quickly, and there it was - the dreaded outbid notice. His hands shaking, he punched the keys for 29.50, paused for a second, then hit delete.
"Let's go all out," he figured. "Let's do 42.99," as he typed in the numbers and once again hit "Place." He watched the clock and hoped for the best. Barely 10 seconds left - did he make it in time? "C'mon," he hoped. "Reload. Reload!"
No, he realized, as "Bidding has closed for this item" flashed on the screen in bold letters. Once again, he had been struck down by a sniper, and the Elvis cookie jar - the one he craved so badly - would soon be in the hands of tcb2000.
Welcome to the strange world of eBay, the online auction site that's been called "the world's biggest garage sale" and - for Elvis Presley fans the world over - the place to go these days if you're buying and selling collectibles of the King of Rock-and-Roll.
"How Great Thou Art"
Named after the San Francisco Bay area where the company got its start just a few years ago, eBay (www.ebay.com) was founded by a Silicon Valley software engineer named Pierre Omidyar, who - so the story goes - looked to the Internet as a handy means of helping his wife sell her ever-growing collection of Pez candy dispensers. eBay still offers Pez dispensers - more than 2,800 the last time we checked - but the site has exploded since then, and more than 4 million toys and books and dolls and magazines and records and cars and houses and you name it (just about everything except firearms, animals, or "human parts and remains") are being auctioned each and every day.
The whole concept is absurdly easy. Sellers post descriptions and digital photos (called "jpegs") of their wares on eBay and the items go on auction for a period ranging from three to ten days. Hopeful buyers first register with eBay (it's free), then bid on the items before the time runs out. Both buyer and seller use screen I.D.'s, which can simply be their e-mail address or something considerably more fanciful. Then, when the auction closes, eBay puts the highest bidder in touch with the seller. The buyer pays the seller, the seller ships the item, and then the seller pays eBay an insertion fee (from $.25 to $2.00) plus 1.5 to 5 percent of the sale, both depending on the final cost.
In the early days of eBay (and we're talking, oh, 1998 here), items were lumped into two rather broad groups: computers and collectibles. Nowadays, all those millions of items are sorted into more than 1,600 categories, ranging from general ("toys") to specific ("yo-yos: vintage"). Even better, a search engine lets buyers type in the specific name of anything their hearts desire, and eBay then scrolls up a list of every one of those items - sometimes thousands of them - which can be sorted by bid starting date, bid ending date, or even price. Click on any item in the list, and a screen pops up with a detailed description of the item, a photograph (usually), along with beginning and ending dates of the auction, the current bid, the seller's I.D., and other handy information.
Search for "Elvis" and eBaysians (yes, that's what users are called) will quickly discover that he is indeed the King of eBay, with more than 7,800 items listed as we went to press in June, in fact. Elvis' dominance of eBay puts him considerably ahead of the Beatles (6,103), the Rolling Stones (2,136), Frank Sinatra (1,701), and Led Zeppelin (1,025) and miles ahead of Shania Twain (786), Garth Brooks (827), and even Michael Jackson (947). In fact, as a brand name, Elvis Presley is only topped on eBay by Barbie and Disney.
(Remember all the commotion John Lennon caused so many years ago when he made that comment about the Beatles being more popular than Jesus? He's wrong - it's Elvis, at least judging from items posted on eBay. In June, when Elvis had close to 8,000 items for auction, Jesus had 2,241, and God Himself had just 3,027, though neither of those two, of course, cranked out very many hit records - the bulk of the Elvis items on eBay.)
Elvis is so big, in fact, that he has his own site, called "Elvis-O-Rama" (www.ebay.com/elvis - it's a link off the main page), where fans can "get all shook up about stuff you just can't help falling in love with." Chat rooms let fans around the globe share Elvis stories, quickly search the lists of items for sale, and even check on the value of something before they bid by emailing eBay's resident Elvis expert, Rockin' Robin.
"When I came to eBay in November 1997 and saw there were only about 150 listings for Elvis items, I thought this is the vehicle, the venue, the place, to bring people from all over the world to buy and sell and add to their collections," says Robin Rosaaen, an eBay customer service representative (also called an "ambassador") based at the company's headquarters in San Jose, California. "It has grown fabulously over the last few years."
Rockin' Robin probably owns one of the largest private collections of Elvis memorabilia in the world - more than 40,000 items the last time she counted - and has her own Web site (members.ebay.com/about firstname.lastname@example.org) where she posts photos of the King, including one showing him kissing her on the cheek during a concert. She remembers watching Elvis perform on the Ed Sullivan show in 1957, "and when I saw him in person in 1970, I was hooked for good."
Before eBay, it took considerably more work to buy and sell Elvis items. "Most of the time we would go to swap meets, and I would travel up to San Francisco and go to all the record stores," says Rosaaen. "We would tell each other where we'd seen things, and spend time and money driving around looking."
The Internet in general, and eBay in particular, has made that process just a bit easier.
"A lot of people are unable to get to Memphis, or unable to get to auctions," she says. "They want to add to their collection but have no way of getting there physically, so this is a great venue for them to come to. They don't even have to leave the house."
eBay gathers more than four decades of Elvis collectibles into one location. There are other auctions online, but the others don't come close in terms of sheer quantity. Amazon.com auctions, for example, list just 794 Elvis items for sale - about 10 percent of eBay's inventory.
"I've seen things on here [eBay] I never even knew existed," Rosaaen says. "A little over a year ago, I was able to find Elvis' dental records from the Palm Springs [California] dentist office where he went when he lived there. A new dentist had bought the office and was going through old files and found his chart and three X-rays. So he put it on eBay and I saw it. That's probably the most unique thing I've ever found."
One day, she also discovered the original floor plans to Graceland. "I sold them to a guy down in Salinas for $450," she remembers. "I included several pictures of the house, so it made a nice portfolio for him."
"There Goes My Everything"
An amazing assortment of Elvis stuff turns up on eBay: 45s, 78s, EPs, LPs, CDs, cassette tapes, books, newspapers, magazines, postcards, tapes, salt-and-pepper shakers, photographs, Graceland snow globes, pink Cadillac cookie jars, hound-dog wall clocks, jewelry, scarves, and more. Just a few examples of some recent sales:
- A seller named mels-collectables (sic) posted a rare 78 rpm Sun record, "Good Rocking Tonight / I Don't Care If the Sun Don't Shine." Scuffed a bit, and missing the sleeve, this hard-to-find item still drew 19 bids before selling for $810.
- Jshort in Kalamazoo, Michigan, posted a group of 14 snapshots taken of Elvis and his family in 1956, when he was living at 1034 Audubon Drive in East Memphis. These one-of-a-kind items drew 19 bids before fetching $1,164.87. The high bidder was kingthings, which just happens to be the eBay I.D. of Rockin' Robin Rosaaen herself.
- A 1953 issue of The Herald, Elvis' yearbook from Humes High School, turned up recently. The starting price was $500, but not for long. It eventually brought $1,235 from buyer sethpoppel, whose company Seth Poppel Archives buys and sells yearbooks featuring celebrities.
- Some members of Elvis' entourage, popularly known as the Memphis Mafia, have turned to eBay to sell their personal mementos. Joe Esposito (espo2001), the King's executive assistant, recently offered his personal identification card that Elvis issued to members of his inner circle. Along with an 8x10 photo of Elvis, it drew 20 bids before selling for $1,600.72 to attackkat1, who, it should be noted, outbid Rockin' Robin on it, and that doesn't happen too often.
- pih@profilesinhistory (some eBay I.D.s are a bit awkward) offered Elvis Presley's original Federal Firearms Transaction Record, dated November 28, 1971, and - this always brings the price up - signed by the King himself. The full-page document shows that Elvis had a concealed weapons permit to carry a Beretta .22 pistol. The starting bid of $750 was a bit too conservative; 21 bids later, this piece brought in $3,050.
- A real oddity: Mickeybch offered the original pest control agreement for Elvis' Hillcrest Road house in Beverly Hills. Signed by Elvis in 1964, it drew 47 bidders before selling for $811.
- A seller called notdads offered something even stranger - a small marble statue, "which resembles a man's penis," supposedly owned by Elvis and supposedly given to him by the artist Salvador Dali. The starting price was $1,500. Even though it came with a "certificate of authenticity" the piece drew no bids. It probably didn't help that the piece resembles in no way the work of the famed surrealist, nor is there any record of Elvis ever meeting Dali.
The questionable authenticity of the Dali statue brings up the issue of fakes, or - to be more charitable about it - mistakes. As with any auction, the general rule must be: Buyer beware. Sellers can, and do, make claims about items - especially regarding Elvis' personal connection with them - that often cannot be verified. And, as the Elvis-O-Rama site clearly states, "Elvis Presley Enterprises, Inc., does not substantiate, validate, or endorse the activity in this destination area."
Mike Freeman and Cindy Hazen recently purchased 1034 Audubon Drive, where Elvis, Vernon, and Gladys Presley lived in 1956 and 1957, just before moving to Graceland. They have been using eBay (and other sources) to furnish the home with authentic items. So far, they've managed to find woven fiberglass curtains, a star-shaped candy dish that matches the ceiling fixtures in their den, and a set of drinking glasses, all from the late 1950s.
"We're looking for period pieces, not necessarily that Elvis owned it," says Freeman. "Frankly, anything Elvis owned that can be documented is astronomical in value. So I'm not trying to buy his TV, or his curtains. What we're trying to buy are things that looked like his."
Freeman and Hazen were recently the high bidders on a red portable TV made by RCA in 1956, exactly like one Elvis had in the house at the time. They got it for $250. "There's a guy in town, who claims he has the TV [that Elvis owned] and he wanted two grand for it," says Freeman. "We passed on that, because frankly, he didn't have the documentation. It's not like Vernon and Gladys wrote down the serial numbers of everything they owned."
Bogus items are usually yanked off eBay quickly. One day, a seller showed up posting a pair of Elvis' underwear. Rockin' Robin, who keeps a sharp eye on the site, yanked that listing. "That was pretty gross," she says. "I cruise the site every day to make sure we don't have anything problematic like that."
There was an even better reason the underwear should have been removed, says Freeman, who, with Hazen, has published two books on Presley (Memphis: Elvis Style and The Best of Elvis: Recollections of a Great Humanitarian) and knows a thing or two about the King. "Because he didn't wear underwear!" he says. "No, he didn't."
Other things sometimes slip through, only to be caught by other collectors. In May, Maxwell72 listed a "real vintage Elvis bust lamp, 1950s," which fetched 45 bids before anyone apparently took a look at the accompanying jpeg of the lamp, which clearly depicted an older, jumpsuit-wearing Elvis. The seller, to his credit, eventually posted an additional description: "I've been e-mailed that this was produced in 1980, so I add this for honesty in description." The auction was canceled.
Also in May, bookworm96 posted an August 15-21, 1977, issue of TV Guide, with a starting price of $200. He (or she) got no bids, and soon posted this message: "Disregard the $200 bid - typo error - should be $2, but if you are so inclined - only joshing!"
"Wear My Ring Around Your Neck"
Authentic Elvis memorabilia doesn't come cheap, as anyone will discover when cruising eBay. A scan of Elvis collectibles one day turned up 19 items with starting bids of more than $1,000 each. In recent weeks, a "pedal cab" supposedly driven by Elvis in the 1962 movie, It Happened at the World's Fair, was posted at $50,000. A 14-karat pin in the shape of an American flag, allegedly owned by Elvis, was listed for $12,500. A "handwritten quotation by Elvis Presley," scribbled on a page torn from a diary ("If I wasn't tough I wouldn't be here; If I wasn't gentle I wouldn't deserve [sic] to be here.") began at $3,000.
None of those items drew a single bid.
"It could be that people thought [these things] were authentic, but it was over their heads," says Freeman. "A lot of people just can't plunk down that much. And it had better be the real thing."
Photographs of Elvis are often some of the most expensive items listed on eBay, and Freeman thinks that many times they aren't worth it.
"I remember something I didn't even bid on," he says. "There were two sets of photographs taken by a Memphis family at Audubon [Drive], a young girl and her mother with Elvis in 1956 or '57. The grandson of the family was putting them on eBay, and he wanted $500 per photograph, minimum bid. I actually e-mailed him, told him these are great pictures, but you're way too high. I think he was under the impression that these were the only two candid photographs of Elvis ever taken, 'never seen before.' There have been a million candid photographs of Elvis.
"That's an example of what you see," he continues. "They think, 'Gosh, I've got this autographed picture that Elvis sent to my mother,' and think they're going to make a down payment on a house with it."
The high cost of photographs can be frustrating to Freeman, who has been trying to locate images that document the changes that have taken place over the years at 1034 Audubon. "I just bought a photograph of Gladys cooking in her kitchen - what's now our kitchen," he says. "It's interesting, because we know the kitchen has changed, but we don't know exactly how it's changed, or what it looked like when they [Presleys] moved in."
Remember that set of 14 snapshots Rockin' Robin bid on, the ones of Elvis and his family on Audubon? "She's going to Xerox copies of them [for us]," says Freeman. "That's very nice of her, and she didn't have to do that, but she wants to help us document the house."
"Pieces of My Life"
Photographs sold on eBay have also proven useful to Alanna Nash, a journalist in Louisville, Kentucky, currently working on a book about Colonel Tom Parker, Presley's enigmatic manager.
"It's a comprehensive biography," she explains. "I was specifically looking for a number of Colonel Parker photographs that had not appeared in numerous places, and found quite a few of them on eBay that were in the hands of private collectors."
Images of Parker, says Nash, can bring anywhere from $40 to more than $100. "There's not much interest in the Colonel at this point, thank God," she laughs. "The Elvis stuff, though, can just go out of sight."
Nash, the author of two books about Elvis and the country music critic for Entertainment Weekly, covered Elvis' 1977 funeral when she was the pop music critic for the Louisville Courier-Journal. She recently paid "well over $100" for a Christmas card that Elvis and Parker sent out together. "It was in terrible shape, but I had never seen it before, and I've seen a heck of a lot of Elvis memorabilia."
She's been pretty successful finding Elvis collectibles on eBay. "But you have to be pretty savvy about bidding on it, and your timing is really important," says Nash. "You have to follow it [bidding] all the way down the line, even if you put in a bid that's pretty darned high. Many times I've put in a high bid when I was going out of town and couldn't access [the site] easily. But if I hadn't gotten on somebody else's computer, at the very last minute I would have lost it." (See "It's Now or Never," page 43.)
Even when she gets outbid on something she wants, Nash has discovered that "there is this kind of community. When somebody has beat me out of something, I have e-mailed them privately afterwards and said, 'You know, if you really don't want that desperately, I really do, and if you would consider selling it, please let me know,' and a couple of times people have."
Another journalist, this one in California, has also been using eBay for her book, but in a different way. Mary Hinds, living in Long Beach, is compiling an annotated bibliography of all the books, magazines, and dissertations about Elvis, to be called Infinite Elvis.
"The idea is to measure the impact of a celebrity on a culture, and I thought you might do that by looking at everything that had been written about the person," she says. "So I started the bibliography, and it grew to over 1,700 items, but the big challenge was that it was very difficult to verify the items."
Hinds needed to prove that some of these one-shot 'zines and other limited-production items she heard about actually existed.
"Because I was already buying books on eBay, it suddenly dawned on me that this was how I could verify other stuff existed," she says. She would search for specific titles of publications, and when she found one she hadn't encountered before, simply download the jpeg image that usually accompanies the listing. "I could put the picture in my file, then e-mail the seller and find out how many pages, when was the publication date, and so forth," she says. "So I did this for probably over 100 books and magazines." All without spending a cent, by the way.
Some "eBaysians" use the site to collect memories. Gloria Pall uses eBay to sell hers. Pall, a popular cover girl and pinup queen in the 1950s and '60s, appeared with Elvis in the 1957 hit movie Jailhouse Rock. She has self-published a number of books about her days in Hollywood, including I Danced Before the King, which details her role as a striptease dancer in the movie.
"I started out on eBay," she says, from her home in North Hollywood. "That's how I sold my first books. They usually bring $20. I'm running out of the first one, and my second book [The Night I Met Elvis] will be an elaboration of that one." She plans to sell it from her own Web site (www.gloriapall.com) and offer it on eBay when it comes out, in what is known as a "Dutch auction," where sellers post multiple copies of the same item.
"King of the Whole Wide World"
"My main goal is to make the Elvis site more of a global community," says Rockin' Robin Rosaaen. "I've brought people on board [as buyers and sellers] from as far away as Prague, Hong Kong, and Jerusalem. It's great to get e-mail from one of those countries and deal with people internationally."
eBay presently maintains separate "global sites" in five other countries: Australia (ebay.com.au), Canada (pages.ca.ebay.com), Germany (www.ebay.de), Japan (www.ebayjapan.co.jp), and the United Kingdom (www.ebay.uk). As in the United States, each of those offers rather extensive listings of Elvis collectibles, though on a bit smaller scale.
For example, tilly, a seller in New South Wales, Australia, recently offered an "Elvis scarf worn by the King" for $450 U.S. ($788 Australian). In Germany, thermo14 listed a set of 14 RCA singles in a limited edition box for 444 Deutschmarks. In Great Britain, stampcoverman posted a letter Elvis wrote to an English fan in 1966, with a starting price of 750 pounds. And in Japan - well, it's hard to say, since that particular site is entirely in Japanese.
Twenty-three years after the death of the King of Rock-and-Roll, Elvis remains very much alive on eBay.