Old Cameras, eBay and Craig's List

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Many of us
have hobbies that make our lives a little better. Mine is collecting
old film cameras. Yes, digital photography is great and getting
better, but there is something inherently satisfying in those old
optical-mechanical marvels. The first time you use an old camera
is especially fascinating. It takes time to figure out its idiosyncrasies
and you never know whether it's a champ or a chump until a film
is processed and pictures are printed.

Due to digital
photography, collecting film cameras has become incomparably cheaper.
With the exception of cult cameras like Leicas, used film cameras
in good shape are three, four, five, or even ten times cheaper than
only a few years ago.

I used to go
to eBay a lot, but now I stopped. The main reason for it is that
it's tough to find a real bargain on eBay. Since I am on a budget,
it's hard to justify spending much on old junk, some of it pretty
useless (like my new old Argus C3 — it works, but boy, it's a real
pain…).

Here is a short
taxonomy of eBay film camera sellers:

Experts.
These usually provide fine and accurate descriptions of their wares,
but charge top dollar (although usually don't overcharge). Too bad.

"Power
sellers" who happen to come across an old camera accidentally.
Provide short descriptions and sell "as-is." On a positive
side, offer low starting bids and usually do not a have a "reserve"
price. These folks are true capitalists.

Occasional
or accidental sellers who stumble across an old piece of equipment
(e.g. at a garage sale). These are usually the worst. They often
exaggerate the camera condition, but wash their hands with lame
excuses such as "I have no battery and/or film to test this
camera so it's sold as-is." Yeah, right! Some occasional sellers
have an "I can't be bothered with questions" attitude.
Some want a top price; others do not care too much… It is a motley
group.

Sellers
of personal equipment — the "I moved on to digital but need
to find a nice new home for my baby" crowd. Often have
irrational price expectations and exaggerate the camera condition.
Display "anchoring"
or "loss
aversion
" — "I paid $900 for it 8 years ago and now
you have the gall to offer me a stinky 100???" The weirdest
example was "…I paid $500 for it in 1985 and now, taking inflation
into account, it's got to be worth at least $800!" Hello, this
not gold we are talking about, but a piece of technology
about to go the way of dinosaurs and slide
rules
! You moved on to digital, but so did millions of others.

The only "sure"
way to get a working camera in good condition is to buy from experts.
Alas, these cameras are unlikely to be bargains. When buying from
"power sellers" or accidental sellers, it's possible to
bag a bargain sometimes, but it's really a lottery; most likely
their cameras will require a CLA (cleaning, lubrication, adjustment)
or even more serious repair. With CLA prices starting in the $80–100
range, only truly special cameras are worth the price or effort.
In my book, $20 spent on a photo dog is $20 lost since I want my
cameras to work rather than just be interior decoration pieces.

The overall
mark of eBay is its extreme efficiency. Cult cameras or well-described
cameras in good condition will attract multiple bids and will be
sold at the market price. Like any other market, eBay takes uncertainty
(risk) into account. Non-cult cameras sold by non-experts are unlikely
to command high prices, usually with good reason.

This efficiency
means that cameras which I'd like to buy are usually too expensive
for my budget. So I left eBay and started using Craig's list. Craig's
list is totally unlike eBay. Search capabilities are minimal. There
are no "histories" associated with sellers and buyers.
There are no services like PAYPAL. Most importantly, it is organized
geographically, so you deal with locals.

Dealing with
locals has several advantages: there are no shipping costs, you
can avoid some scams by dealing face to face, and you can check
out the merchandize before you buy. The last advantage is key. Once
in a while, you can get a working camera in good condition for a
song and you don't waste your money on broken junk.

Now for the
disadvantages: it's not as well-organized as eBay, it has fewer
offerings, and, more importantly, it is dominated by occasional
and personal equipment sellers, i.e., amateurs and novices as far
as selling is concerned (experts and power sellers tend to stay
away). Many have unreasonable expectations anchored in the purchase
price. E.g., a seller wants to sell a used lens for $300. A new
lens like that costs $150. I point out this fact to him and suggest
that a price around $100 could be more reasonable. No, answers the
seller, I paid $400 for it. $300 is my price and I won't budge.
Here is another example: a lady has a camera and lens for sale.
What's the camera and lens model, I ask. Just give me your offer,
she replies and don't bother me with questions…

Overall, Craig's
list isn't terribly efficient. On average, its sellers are less
professional and sophisticated than those on eBay. Yet, this is
what makes a source of occasional incredible bargains. Some Craig's
list sellers seem to have an easy attitude — I don't need this,
let me just give it to someone who can make use of it!

So, there you
have it. Granted, these impressions are based on the used film photography
market; it would be interesting to compare it with other product
categories. The general advise is this: a decent old camera on eBay
will more often than not sell for the fair price — the one that
the market is willing to bear! If you want serendipity, use Craig's
list but be prepared to deal with some unreasonable and even downright
weird people.

(Disclaimer:
the author is fully aware that anyone is free to ask any price they
want for their property. And, to be sure, psychological costs of
selling something "too cheap" may far exceed the economic
opportunity cost of holding on to it).

December
4, 2006

Sergei
Boukhonine [send him mail]
writes out of Austin TX.

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