A Guide to Buying Vintage Watches on eBay Part 1

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So you’ve decided you want to buy a vintage watch? Excellent choice (but beware, it’s a slippery slope—you can’t just buy one!). But where to get one? There aren’t too many brick and mortar stores where you can find vintage watches, and the few that exist aren’t accessible to all. Of course, there are many respectable (and some not-so-respectable) online sellers, too. While these venues usually take the guesswork and stress out of buying a vintage watch, that assurance often comes with a hefty surcharge. My experience with most online dealers is that, more often than not, their prices are sky-high. You can also buy vintage watches from the sales corners of the various watch forums out there. This is a great way to go if you are an established forum member and know who the sellers are, but it can also be risky as there is no real feedback system to know who you are buying from. That leaves us with one other avenue, and it’s the biggest market out there: eBay.

eBay is a vast and glorious, never-ending marketplace of stuff—the flea market to end all flea markets. And it is flush with vintage watches. At any given time, there are more than 125,000 results when you search “vintage watch”—that’s a lot of fish in the ‘Bay! Needless to say, you have lots to choose from if you want to buy from eBay, and that can be both a blessing and curse. eBay, while having some obvious upsides, also comes with many downsides.

Often referred to by veteran collectors as “ePrey,” it can be a treacherous byzantine maze to navigate. There are many sellers who are simply not knowledgeable about what they’re selling, and there are many more who are less-than-scrupulous, which is a problem if you don’t know what you’re doing.

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That’s where this guide comes in. I’ve bought countless watches on eBay over the years. In fact, some of my best purchases were eBay finds. Today, I’m here to arm you with some basic knowledge so that you can wade into the deep waters of the ‘Bay and come out the other end with some solid buys.

What Does an Original Example Look Like?

There are three things you should consider first when purchasing a vintage watch: Condition, condition, and, you guessed it, condition. Now this may seem obvious to some, but it really is the single most important aspect to consider. You should attempt to acquire the best and most original example of a given watch that you can afford. Originality is the key element of condition, in that something is only original once, and if you alter it (polishing the case—I shudder when I think of all the over-polished watches out there—using aftermarket parts, repainting the dial, etc.), then it is forever a lesser watch in most collectors’ eyes. Sadly, the only way these things can be undone is with the acquisition of new old stock parts, and this is often very difficult—sometimes impossible—to do. Now, many folks love patina to varying degrees, so “excellent condition” can definitely be in the eye of the beholder. That said, since you are purchasing the watch, it is your eye that needs to love the condition, so you should go with what works for you and your tastes.

Some watches, like the Seiko 6139-6002 “Pogue,” are more prone to being tampered with. Doing your research and learning what you should look for is critical in such instances if you want to avoid getting burned.

Often referred to by veteran collectors as “ePrey,” it can be a treacherous byzantine maze to navigate. There are many sellers who are simply not knowledgeable about what they’re selling, and there are many more who are less-than-scrupulous, which is a problem if you don’t know what you’re doing.

Once you’ve identified the watch you’re after, take some time out to research the model so that you can make an informed decision regarding the authenticity and condition of a potential buy. Find as many examples of your watch as possible. Search Ebay. Use Google Images. Scan the forums. Find defunct watch sites from years ago if you can. Use old auction catalogs. Basically, exhaust all your options to get as clear a picture of what an authentic and correct example of your desired model should look like. This could take more time and dedication than you’re willing to give it, but it’s critical to be armed with the best knowledge before you start hunting for that watch.

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Old auction catalogs can be an important resource when doing research on vintage watches.

Determining the Condition of the Watch For Sale

Okay, so you’ve done all your research. You’ve absorbed all the information that you need to make an informed decision. You get on eBay, search for your desired watch, and a number of listings appear. You click on one. What do you do now?

Your first task is to determine the condition of the watch. The best way to do that is to carefully check the provided photos in the listing. Seller’s photos run the gamut from having a single blurry picture shot from a mile away, to a dozen professionally-lit glamor shots from all possible angles. No matter what type of pictures the listing has, your charge is to look at each one closely and to super-size them on your computer screen when that option is available. Of course, this seems all too obvious, but it’s easy to get overly excited about a model you’ve been after for several years (yes, it can—and in certain instances will—take years) and not pay attention to all the details only to get burned because you didn’t do your due diligence.

I do 99% of my eBay browsing on my iPhone—like most of you do, I’d wager—and the pictures are naturally smaller than they would be on a computer screen. When I find a watch I’m seriously interested in, I add it to my “watch list” so that I can really do a deep dive when I’m at a desktop. You would be surprised what small details can be revealed this way, and it will save you the headache of having to return something because of a defect you missed on your phone.

A selection of images from a listing via hessfineauctions (note: this is not an endorsement of the watch or the seller).

Often sellers won’t have a wide variety pictures from every angle, and many sellers ignore the case back. Hopefully there will be at least one image of the movement. If possible, you’ll want to see the movement to make sure there isn’t any discoloration/oxidation from water exposure. If you see that, then I suggest you stay away. It’s often not worth the trouble. If the listing is really lacking, don’t be afraid to email the seller for more pictures. More often than not the seller will add the requested views. If they aren’t willing to provide more information or pictures, this should be taken as a red flag that there’s something wrong with the watch and the seller may be trying to hide it from you.

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Read the Fine Print

You’ve looked at the pictures, and you like what you see. Now it’s time to read the detailed item description. Like the photos, descriptions can vary widely from “old watch” to a dissertation waxing poetic upon the grandeur of this particular piece. Again, your job is to take what is given to you and to separate the wheat from the chaff. While I definitely appreciate a complete and detailed written description, be wary of lengthy, overly wordy descriptions. Sellers will frequently write way too much, and little details like “repainted dial” or “doesn’t run” can be lost in the sea of words. Take your time and read everything!

Again, if the description is missing information that you would like to know (such as if it runs or not—you’d be surprised how often that little tidbit is not included), do not hesitate to contact the seller with your questions. I ask almost always ask sellers, “Are there any marks, stains, or areas of discoloration on the dial?” Light dial patina doesn’t always show up in pictures, and the sellers may not know enough to mention it.

You’ll want to see the movement to make sure there isn’t any discoloration/oxidation from water exposure. If you see that, then I suggest you stay away. It’s often not worth the trouble.

Also, don’t forget to read the “fine print,” if there is any. You never know what details might be hidden there, like “we don’t accept PayPal” or added costs like a “restocking fee” should you need to return the watch. Information is your greatest weapon against disappointment.

Now that you’ve done your due diligence with the images and the description, it’s time to look into the seller. Experienced enthusiasts will often repeat the adage, “buy the seller,” and nowhere is that more true than eBay. In part 2 of this guide, I’ll offer some tips on how to size up the seller, some tried and true bidding practices, how to avoid overpaying, and what to ask for after you’ve won an auction.

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Christoph (Instagram’s @vintagediver) is a long time collector and lover of all things vintage, starting with comic books when he was a kid (he still collects them). His passion for watches began in 1997 when he was gifted a family heirloom vintage Omega Genève by his step-father. That started him on the watch collecting path—buying and selling vintage watches of all sorts, with a special appreciation for vintage dive watches and Seiko.
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