A Guide to Buying Vintage Watches on eBay Part 2

Last week, we wrote about the preliminary steps you need to take if you’re thinking of buying a vintage watch on eBay, from doing some basic research to making sure you read all the fine print. Today, Christoph McNeill (Instagram’s @VintageDiver) offers some tried and true tips on how to size up the seller, how to avoid overpaying, and what to ask for after you’ve won an auction.

Buy the Seller

Okay, now that you’ve checked all the pictures and carefully read the description, your next step is to look into the seller. One of eBay’s greatest features is its feedback system. While it is definitely a little flawed, it remains an invaluable tool for both buyers and sellers alike. Check the seller’s feedback. If they have more than one or two negative or neutral marks, that can be a red flag.

If that happens to be the case, do a little digging to see what the deal is. It could be an unreasonable buyer who left negative feedback because the item wasn’t shipped quickly enough, or it could be something more serious like the seller doesn’t respond to emails or the item was not as described.

Generally, if a seller has multiple negative or neutral ratings, I avoid buying from them, even if they’re selling a watch I really want. That said, it’s not necessarily a deal breaker if the seller doesn’t have 100% positive feedback. Look at the overall picture of their rating and go with your gut.You will also want to see what other items the seller has for sale. Do they sell a lot of watches, or do they have one watch and a boat load of Cabbage Patch Kids and baby clothes? If they only (or mostly) sell watches, this should indicate that they have some idea about the condition and operation of their watches and are likely knowledgeable about their wares. Or conversely, the seller might be a huckster selling overly polished watches rife with aftermarket parts and descriptions filled with deceptive, flowery prose.

That said, it’s not necessarily a deal breaker if the seller doesn’t have 100% positive feedback. Look at the overall picture of their rating and go with your gut.

Sometimes it’s a benefit to buy from someone who does not normally sell watches. I’ve found it to be far less likely that a watch has been tampered with or has aftermarket parts if the person is selling a watch they inherited, picked up at an estate sale, or, better yet, are the original owner! I’ve gotten some of my best eBay buys from sellers like this.

One of my eBay scores.

Another thing to look at is the seller’s location. If they’re abroad, a language barrier can hinder communication if you try to get additional information. Shipping can get quite expensive, too, especially if you want tracking and insurance, and returns can be tedious and pricey. Although it’s an added cost, I highly recommend paying any additional fees required to get tracking on international purchases. It adds a layer of security for you, and it will give you peace of mind that your new watch is making its way to you.

It has also been my experience that a lot of fake watches come out of certain countries (I recall seeing many fake military watches coming out of Eastern Europe not too long ago), especially when we’re talking about Seiko. There are many sellers that hail from Southeast Asia that sell heavily modified Seikos (apologies to all the legit Southeast Asian sellers out there). That said, I’ve also gotten some of my best watches and deals from overseas sellers. These watches can end up selling for well below market value, partly because less experienced buyers may be put off by an overseas merchant. You can get some great deals if you follow my advice and if you’re willing to take a little risk. Like Bruce Arians says, ”No risk it, no biscuit.”

Something to be aware of on eBay is a practice known as “shill bidding.” This is where an unscrupulous seller will use friends and/or fake accounts to bid up their auctions. This is done so the seller can get a higher price than the market would normally achieve without setting a reserve price on the auction. eBay technically does not allow this, however, it is something that is nearly impossible for them to police.

Sometimes it’s a benefit to buy from someone who does not normally sell watches. I’ve found it to be far less likely that a watch has been tampered with…

The best way to detect this practice is to check the bidder history on completed auctions. If there are multiple zero or very low feedback bidders that are the highest—or second and third highest—bidders, then this might be a seller who engages in shill bidding. Also, if you see that an item that you are interested in has been sold and relisted one or more times, shill bidding is the likely reason. It’s not uncommon for buyers to back out of an auction and for sellers to relist an item, but if you see it consistently in a seller’s history, then, “Danger Will Robinson! Danger!”

What Should I be Willing to Spend?

So you’ve identified a watch that you want, found one on eBay, looked at the pictures, read the description and vetted the seller, and you’re ready to buy. Now you need to do a little market research to determine how much you should spend. Only you know how much you can afford to spend on a watch, so I won’t get into that can of worms. But you still need to determine the going rate for your watch.

The best way to check this is to look through completed auctions. I run a search for the brand and model I’m interested in. Then I filter the results by “sold” and I sort that by highest price first. By looking through this list you can see what people are actually getting for their watches.

For many popular brands and models, there can be a large sample size of sold watches, but there often isn’t a whole lot of data to go on with rarer models. Search “Seiko 6139” and you’ll get a plethora of data; search “vintage Eberhard Scafograf” and you’re most likely going to get zilch.

WatchRecon is also a good tool for tracking the going rate of specific watches.

Prices realized in auctions can vary significantly depending on rarity, desirability, condition, seller (and seller location), as well as the time of year. One important thing to remember when setting a price for yourself is to take into account the price of servicing. eBay watches are rarely serviced, and even if the seller says otherwise you have to take that with a grain of salt.

But It Now

Now that you have decided how much you can and should pay for the watch, it’s time to pull the trigger. If you’re lucky, you may find a watch with a “buy it now” price that fits within your parameters and, if so, you should snap it up. If the seller is offering a “buy it now with best offer” option, make a fair offer that is a little lower than what they’re asking. You are more likely to have your offer accepted with a fair offer than if you try to lowball the seller.

If there are any issues contact the seller immediately to resolve them. Don’t be afraid to ask for a return if there is some undisclosed problem.

More likely than not, though, you’ll be bidding on an auction. In this case, I suggest you do not bid as soon as you find the watch. I always find it best to wait until the last few minutes of an auction to reduce the chances of the watch being bid up. Keep in mind that lots of savvy eBay buyers use this strategy, so don’t be surprised when the price jumps dramatically in the final minutes. I can’t even count the number of auctions I’ve lost at the last second when a watch went from $100 to $500 in the blink of an eye. So set your limit and bid, but know that someone else may want it more than you. Bidding at the end of an auction can be difficult as they can end at any time of the day. I usually set an alarm on my phone set to go off a few minutes before the auction ends so I don’t miss out.

A Bulova Surfboard Chronograph—another great eBay score.

When I’ve won an auction, I usually reach out to the seller and politely ask them to pack up the watch securely in a box. You’d be surprised how often sellers will just toss a watch into a padded envelope and send it off into the abyss.

Once your watch arrives safely (fingers crossed!) be sure to inspect it as soon as you can and make sure everything matches the pictures and description. If there are any issues, then you should contact the seller immediately. Don’t be afraid to ask for a refund if there is some undisclosed problem. Hopefully there won’t be, and you’ll be wearing your new watch and living the dream!

eBay can be a hazardous terrain to traverse, but if you’re armed with all the right information, then you can make some great buys to grow you watch collection. Take your time and do your due diligence. And be patient. It really can take years to find the right watch in the right condition from the right seller. Check out the watch, check out the seller, research and set your price and stick with it. Don’t feel compelled to snap up the first example of a desired model you find. Hopefully you’ll win your desired auction(s), but sometimes you won’t and that is okay. There’s always the next one.

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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.