Everything from the Heaven's Gate Cult Van to Everlasting Life is available from the online auctioneer Ebay.com
By Christopher Ditto
April 15, 2002
If you're shocked that someone is auctioning the Ford van that shuttled Heaven's Gate cult members around Southern California, perhaps you haven't been spending enough time on eBay.
Dirt from a Civil War battlefield, a serial killer's fingernails, a human testicle, the Arc of the Covenant, and the planet Earth have all, at one time or another, come up for sale on the massive online auction site.
With 138 million auctions in the first three months of 2002 alone, it is no surprise that sellers push the limits on what can be sold. A flood of strange items appears each day at www.ebay.com and, occasionally, eager buyers bid on them. Some of the more common oddities include human souls, a mother's sage advice, and, at any one time, close to 10,000 items that fall under the category of "metaphysical."
If you are offended by anything on the site, or if you find anything illegal, don't blame eBay. The company contends that because their site is merely "an Internet commerce platform" they are not responsible for auctioned items. "As an eBay user," the company's disclaimer reads, "you are ultimately responsible for making sure that buying or selling your item(s) is legal in the eyes of the law." But even so, the site does have some restrictions. Drug paraphernalia, credit cards, driver's licenses, stolen property and Government IDs, for example, all fall under the "prohibited" category. Artifacts, hazardous materials, and used medical devices are just a few of the items categorized as "questionable."
One thing missing from eBay's restriction lists is the promise of everlasting life. Sun Stone Herbals, a "natural healing" company based out of Scottsdale, Ariz., and a frequent eBay auctioneer, put 50 pairs of "immortality rings" on the auction block in early April. The magnet-powered invention "allows humans to live forever." By wearing two adjustable plastic rings to sleep each night for several weeks, "a real reversal in aging process becomes apparent."
And where there are sellers, there are buyers. Diana Carson, who said that she does not want to live longer, "just healthier," won the auction for one pair of immortality rings, paying $18.95 plus $4.50 shipping and handling. "Just call me curious," said Carson. "Magnets are known for their healing powers."
So what happens if someone tries to sell something that is illegal, unethical, or just pure make-believe? EBay's "Safe Harbor" program enforces the law online with a community watch team, an investigation group, and fraud department. The community watch team trolls the auction listings, on the lookout for suspicious items; they react by either warning sellers or ending auctions outright. The investigations group looks into trading infractions and "misuses of eBay." The fraud department helps users resolve disputes over the quality of the merchandise sold, and they handle fraudulent transactions.
An eBay seller who goes by the online moniker mr.haneycohooterville said that he managed to sell four compact discs, each containing 475 images from ground zero site in New York City, before eBay stopped him.
"They shut me down," said mr.haneycohooterville. "Said they were crime scene photos." The same seller also put vials of pool water from the television show Melrose Place up for auction recently. "Your favorite stars have swam and soaked in this pool for years," read the product description. The lucky high-bidder paid $10 for the water and an accompanying "letter of authenticity."
In March, one week after a jury convicted Andrea Yates of capital murder for drowning her five children in the bathtub of her Houston home, both her medical records and confession to police were up for sale on eBay.
EBay employees stopped the auction of the medical records after a crime victim's advocate complained, but public documents were still available because, strictly speaking, they are a matter of public record and can legally be sold. Selling personal effects related to murder cases, which could be argued to include medical records, is illegal in Texas.
In late April, an eBay search on the word "Enron" turned up 652 items. Coffee mugs, an ethics handbook, and the business card of ex-Arthur Andersen CEO Joseph Berardino were just a few of the items listed. Enron, once the seventh largest company in America, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last November.
"Own a piece of history," gushed Kerrigan Gray, who auctioned one of the 30 Enron stock certificates listed on eBay. He described his item, which has virtually no face value as a stock certificate, as "mint condition, crisp and clean" with "no yellowing or stains."
But not all of the legitimate oddities for sale on eBay can be touched and felt. The "Sceptre of Destruction," available for a mere $389.95, is actually a virtual video game object in the online interactive game EverQuest. Players who are not good enough or simply don't have the time to move up levels, complete quests, or obtain objects like a Sibilisian berserker cloak, can pay for them online with real dollars (that is, if you consider credit cards, Pay Pal transactions, or money orders to be any more real than a purse full of EverQuest platinum pieces.)
Another item that sounds like it should be in a video game is a set of possum-fur nipple warmers, sold on eBay by the New Zealand Nature Company. The two round, fuzzy disks are made from the fur of a brush-tail possum, a creature that the company assures is both as soft as mink and the "No. 1 enemy of New Zealand's native forests."
Drue Miller, who runs the Web site www.whowouldbuythat.com, believes that buyers are attracted to strange online items like nipple warmers because "they're amusing, they provide fodder for conversation, they make us feel less self-conscious about our own idiosyncrasies." Miller's site provides a weekly listing of some of the stranger auction items that can be found on the Web. "We may aspire to live the Martha Stewart lifestyle," said Miller, "but the truth is we're happier with our crocheted toilet paper cozies and sad-eyed clown paintings. We like these things because they're goofy and imperfect and comforting; they have soul, which is something that Martha's perfect gingerbread houses and all those 'shabby chic' decorator objects lack."
But perhaps the real lure of the bizarre items on eBay is the chance for just a little bit of attention. Darrin Farrow, an investment banker, won a bid earlier this year for a Feb. 2 guest appearance on the television show "Politically Incorrect."
The going price for 15 minutes of fame these days? $47,000.
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