The Far Side of Online Auctions

Internet auctions have become a place for businesses of all sizes to make money — to the tune of nearly $55 billion (US$) in sales a year. Still, the leading auction sites have retained something of their original flair as a place for passionate collectors of odds and ends to exchange prized possessions. Of course, with that spirit of “anything goes” comes the lunatic fringe.

When asked about the strangest auction eBay ever handled, spokesperson Kevin Pursglove told the E-Commerce Times, “One auction that we thought was unique or different in the early days was a used bulldozer that sold for $23,000.”

Although the bulldozer sale was considered unusual at the time, it turned out to be a precursor of a trend: businesses across the country started using eBay to buy and sell traditional goods. In the end, not so unusual after all.

So, while acknowledging the maturity of Net auctions, the E-Commerce Times set out to honor the garage-sale origin of the industry by compiling a list of the Top Ten zaniest online auctions. The roll call includes the large and the small, the illegal and the intangible.

Just like a neighborhood yard sale, everything is on the table, and the price is cash on the barrel (or the electronic equivalent thereof).

10. Discarded Submarine, Extra Large

Along with airplanes and Indy sports cars, a lot of new and used cars are now being auctioned online. When looking into the vehicle category, however, the zaniest sale would have to be a World War II submarine sold on eBay by a small town in New England that decided it did not need the historical relic anymore.

Pursglove said the sub, save plots of land, is likely one of the largest items ever sold on eBay.

9. Well-Preserved Trash

Online auctions were founded on the principle that one person’s trash is another’s treasure. Indeed, eBay was first hatched when founder Pierre Omidyar wanted to help his wife meet fellow Pez dispenser collectors online.

Speaking of sugary treats, Yahoo! Auctions has a number of sellers “who buy and sell plastic Slurpee cups from the 70s and 80s, and keep them in airtight containers,” according to spokesperson Rich Goodwin.

Goodwin added, “One thing that we learn every day is that no matter what it is, someone collects it.”

8. Tiny Pieces of Space

The smallest items that sellers at Yahoo! Auctions have offered are tiny pieces of meteorites “from outer space.”

7. Expensive Slips of Paper… and Failing Web Sites

After large and small, the next measurement is price. The highest price for an eBay auction ever was the $1.265 million paid for a near-mint condition baseball card depicting Hall of Fame shortstop John Peter “Honus” Wagner. The card has alternately been called the Holy Grail of baseball cards, or the Mona Lisa of sports memorabilia.

Despite the eye-popping numbers, the record seemed destined for the dustbin of history earlier this week when satiric Web site F** attracted bids in excess of $3 million. However, after touching off a two-day media frenzy, the auction (and its high bids) unceremoniously disappeared from the site.

6. Fake, Functioning Body Parts

So much for the biggest, smallest and most expensive. Now, what about “least ethical”? Well, last September someone offered to sell a “fully functioning kidney” on eBay. The bids hit $5.7 million before eBay stopped the sale.

According to eBay’s rules, the sale of body parts is not allowed. Selling body organs (your own, not someone else’s) is also illegal under U.S. federal law and is punishable by up to five years in prison or a $50,000 fine.

As it turned out, the kidney sale was a prank.

5. Soul, Delivery Extra

Back in February or March, someone tried to sell his soul on eBay.

The auction created a perplexing issue internally for the company. Is a soul a body part? How can a soul be delivered? Ultimately, because of the delivery problem, eBay decided to take the auction down.

The frustrated Faustian tried Yahoo! Auctions as well, but the portal took the poor soul off the block for the same reasons.

4. Missile Impossible

Pursglove told the E-Commerce Times that a missile was once listed on the eBay site. The company thought, at first, that the auction was another prank.

Then the eBay legal department got together with federal authorities in Washington, D.C., who suggested that eBay leave the auction up and pending on the site so they could bid on it. After the federal agents won the bidding war, they moved in and made an arrest.

As a matter of fact, eBay works with law enforcement agencies all the time to uncover stolen goods being fenced on its auctions, and the police often search eBay to find missing loot.

3. Just a Kiss (Can’t Buy Love)

What could be more ephemeral than a soul? Love itself? Neither eBay nor Yahoo! Auctions allows the sale of dates or relationships on their sites. However, both auctioneers allow the sale of personal experiences.

During the Valentine’s Day season this year, Yahoo! conducted an auction called “With this Kiss.” Hollywood stars put their lipstick kiss-prints on greeting cards, and the items were then auctioned off to benefit Elton John’s AIDS charity.

“X Files” actress Gillian Anderson’s card got the highest bid of $3,500.

2. Please, Leave a Message

Yahoo! Auctions has also sold the experience of having a celebrity leave a message on someone’s answering machine, and fishing lessons with Dusty Baker of the San Francisco Giants baseball team.

In collaboration with, eBay is about to start its own personal-experience auctions, selling the opportunity to interact with celebrities, athletes and entertainers at special events around the world.

1. Get Out the Vote

Online auctions continue to reflect the antics of the human race during every season of the year. In fact, around the Fourth of July, an original copy of the Declaration of Independence was sold at an online auction. The latest seasonal sale? A couple of people tried to sell their votes in the upcoming presidential election to the highest online bidder.

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