Bid or brush-off? Buying instruments on eBay

Every 20 seconds a guitar is sold on eBay, so how reliable is the auction site when it comes to ordering instruments?

Music is one of the fastest growing sections of this popular auction website, where listings range from worthless junk to highly collectible items. At the time of writing, there were almost 30,000 instruments for sale on UK eBay alone.

One of the 135 million users of the site is Susan Kundert, a musician based in the US.

She has purchased three oboes and three clarinets on the site in the last 18 months, paying from $40 for a student level clarinet to $4,000 for a professional oboe. Her main reason for buying from the site is accessibility.

"There is simply no other source that I know of where such a wide variety of products are immediately available,’ she says. "It is an enormous time-saver.’

"Ebay prices are generally lower than what you would pay for the comparable item in a local shop – if you could find it, that is. The great benefit if buying through eBay is that things which would be difficult, if not impossible, to find in real time are easily available in cyberspace.’

Although Kundert has some concerns about buying instruments from the site, she has not had any bad experiences – she has found that most vendors are very businesslike and courteous.

"The individual sellers with whom I have dealt have universally been very, very kind and helpful. In a couple of purchases (the more expensive ones), the sellers and I exchanged quite a number of detailed, friendly emails and phone calls. I even got a Christmas card from one seller.’

But not everyone has been as lucky. Dealer Bob Jiggins, owner of Judicael Strings in Halifax, has both bought and sold instruments on eBay. Of the 15 violins he bought on the site, two of them ended up being rip-offs.

"On one occasion we bought what was originally not a bad instrument, but we didn’t think to ask all the right questions,’ he explains. "The violin had been revarnished, which had scoured the surface of the wood. This reduced the value of the instrument — it was only worth one third of what it should have been.
The packaging was also badly done; the violin had been taped into its case, which meant that the tape had got stuck to the instrument. It was like pulling a plaster off.’

Jiggins says that most of the problems he has encountered has been down to ignorance on the part of the vendor, rather than a deliberate scam. He has also regularly had customers in his shop who have bought instruments on the eBay and have paid over the odds, without realising it.

"I would be vary of buying an instrument that is not in the current catalogue. If it’s something older, there are many pitfalls, most buyers don’t know the right questions to ask and don’t know the costs of repair and restoration. The exception would be if the instrument came from a reputable dealer, but many people would not know who they are.’

His advice is: "Be very, very careful. Accumulate a lot of information before you buy anything.’ It’s also a good idea to ask for lots of detailed photos of the instrument to avoid unpleasant surprises.

Kundert adds: "You have to have some knowledge of the product you are buying, what for example are the good brands of clarinets and oboes. You have to take responsibility of contacting the seller with questions about the instrument, its history, the reason for selling and so forth. It is also helpful to watch a few auctions before you bid. Use the "completed listings’ function to find out the prices things are going for.’

"Do look at the forms of payment which a seller will accept. I feel most comfortable with a seller who asks for PayPal. This means that their financial details are on file and they are who they say they are. I would be very careful about a seller who asks for only money orders or wired funds.’

According to an eBay spokesperson: "Ebay encourages its users to use common sense on eBay in the same way that they would in their everyday life off the web.

For new users it’s a great idea to visit www.ebay.co.uk/help/ebayexplained for simple steps to buying and selling on ebay.co.uk, including making sure that the seller has strong positive feedback and that the buyer has read the product description, payment terms and return/refund policies before purchasing an instrument.’

"The feedback system also means it’s easy to see the trading history of the person you’re buying from – enabling you to build up trust in the seller, which is critical when you’re buying something like an instrument.’

With all of this in mind, is buying instruments on eBay really worth it?

Jiggins is doubtful: "You can’t actually know the state of the instrument until it’s in your hands.’ Kundert on the other hand says she would happily recommend it to others: "But be beware,’ she warns, "it can become addictive!’