Collectors, unplugged

As eBay celebrates its 10th anniversary, many treasure hunters still do it the old-fashioned way.

He calls himself Mr. Rick and greets me in his driveway wearing a frog hand puppet, the fingers webbed like a frog's toes. It was about 20 years ago that Richard Wohlers bought his first fake frog, a Kermit - the ever-smiling muppet who reflects his own positive outlook. But in the past five years his collection has really taken off.

Frog-themed items slowly filled the Wohlers' living room, until, out of respect for a bemused family that is supportive but less enamored of frogs than he is, Mr. Wohlers moved the collection upstairs. Today, over 4,000 ceramic, plastic, and plush frogs reside in two rooms - one carpeted lime green; the other filled with a green light that filters through the specially tinted window and skylight.

In a digital age, where finding the ridiculous and obscure is as easy as typing "Google," Wohlers and collectors like him are throwbacks. As online auction house eBay celebrates its 10th anniversary Monday, much will likely be written about the way it has revolutionized commerce, especially collecting. Before, a person could spend a lifetime searching for an original boxed Barbie or Mickey Mantle rookie card. Now those items might appear on eBay, in triplicate, at any given time.

But for Wohlers and others, collecting is about more than amassing tchochkes. Each piece has a story, and the discovery - rummaging through clearance bins or uncovering a gem at a yard sale - is half the fun. These traditional collectors have shunned the online method of clicking and bidding. "I could never do it on eBay," Wohlers says. "Almost every frog here has a personal story." Ebay would be "cheating," he says. For him, part of the collecting is the "personal contact."

When it first went live as "a small and dirty website" in 1995, some of eBay's most enthusiastic supporters were collectors, says Adam Cohen, author of "The Perfect Store: Inside eBay."

In fact, eBay legend holds that founder Pierre Omidyar's fiancée - who has since become his wife - collected Pez dispensers. By 1997, collectibles made up nearly 80 percent of eBay's listings.

Today, with 157 million registered users worldwide and 440 million listings, more than 8,700 collectible items are sold on eBay each hour, including at least 12 PEZ dispensers. Some of the collectible objects are bizarre: rusty swirls of "vintage" barbed wire, for instance.

Yet even with eBay being such a major part of the marketplace (USA Today writes an annual story using the year's top-selling items as a window to the cultural landscape) there are still holdouts.

They are people who prefer building collections the old-fashioned way - through patience and cunning and sweat, and maybe a few elbows thrown at flea markets and yard sales.

Judith Hoffman bought her first Frozen Charlotte - a four-inch tall porcelain doll - in 1969, for $21. At the time it was a ridiculous price, she admits, but the vendor knew she wanted it.

Ms. Hoffman now owns 300 dolls, so many that she's been forced to retire a few to storage. They are from shops and flea markets around the world, each laced with the memory of a trip she has taken with her husband, who works for the United Nations. There are antique French and German dolls, milliner's models with papier-mâché heads and cloth bodies, and 30-year-old African clay ones.

Each Saturday and Sunday, Ms. Hoffman visits a flea market near her Manhattan apartment. Sometimes she comes away with a doll; just as often she leaves emptyhanded. But that's part of it - "happenstance and serendipity," she says - which are reasons she doesn't use eBay.

Hoffman understands why friends scour the website to fill gaps in their collections. "But that takes the fun out of it," she says. "Part of it is the exploration."

Hoffman and Wohlers are not alone in their offline scavenging habits. In a 2002 survey, eBay found that 36 percent of people polled were "unintentional collectors" - those who don't see themselves as collectors, but when pressed admit to having a collection of some sort. Only 4 percent of unintentional collectors and 8 percent of intentional collectors pursued their hobby online.

In writing his book, Mr. Cohen says he came across two schools of collectors. Most love eBay, but others feel it "makes it too easy. It takes the sport out of it - the art out of it." As one collector and veteran thrifter told him: "There's something a little sad and soulless about sitting in your underwear at three in the morning shopping over your computer."

Jeffrey Waite, owner of DogEars Book Barn, a general bookstore in Hoosick, N.Y., that also sells antiquarian books for up to $5,000, laments the "de-professionalization" and loss of expertise in the book trade. With the Internet, he says, "Any knucklehead that finds a couple of dozen books in his attic is a bookseller." A true "book person," he adds, would not sell on eBay.

These days, Wohlers hardly has to buy any frogs, so many are sent by family and friends. His wife says the frogs are a way for an outgoing and friendly man to approach and connect with people. To that end, he's turned to dispensing in addition to collecting. He always carries with him a small plastic case with frogs from a local dollar store. I left his house with three.

Barbed wire? Old invoices? On eBay, one man's trash....

The carrot suit worn in the movie "Daddy Day Care":

Going once.

Going twice.

Sold, for $300.

Where would someone find a six-foot-tall carrot costume? On eBay, of course. While pounding the pavement may make collecting fun, eBay has become the destination of choice to easily unearth the weird and wacky.

"I thought [the price] was rather reasonable for such a huge carrot," says Romana Zawarti, the proud owner. It's just one of the 1,800 pieces in her prized carrot-inspired collection.

Other offbeat items that can be found on the online auctioneer include:

• Barbed wire. As the Monitor went to press, three bidders battled over a 40-piece vintage barbed wire sample set. The cost: nearly $19.

• Old invoices, receipts, and tax bills. Spending money to buy bills, not pay them? Hmmm.

• Pope paraphernalia. Things like magazines, posters, pendants, and thimbles became especially popular after the death of Pope John Paul II.

• Japanese lunch sets, many of which are listed from Japan.

• Bells from schools and churches (from hand-held bells to large ones that actually hung in the buildings).

• Dionne Quintuplet items. These five babies were so famous in the 1930s that they inspired dolls, calendars, spoons, and sewing kits.

What is it about eBay that keeps collectors coming back? Penguin collector George Cochran says it's because he "can look up things in the middle of the night."

Other collectors appreciate eBay's favorite-searches feature, where new listings are e-mailed to them daily. For collector Warren Mcallister, "Ebay is probably the reason I own a computer." Although searching eBay initially intimidated him, Mr. Mcallister now collects everything from coffee grinders to hand-held bells.

- Jennifer Moeller

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