Cannabis Prescriptions

e-Auctions --- eCaveat Emptor

Addendum 2a -- 2nd Edition

Addendum 2a
eCaveat Emptor


The following (although dated) is possibly the best article we've been able to find on the subject of Internet Auction sites and possible rip offs associated with such sites.   The original, reprinted with permission, can be found at [], courtesy of the 'American Institute of the History of Pharmacy'.

American Institute of the History of Pharmacy AIHP
e-Auctions and Pharmaceutical Antique Collecting---eCaveat Emptor
by Anthony Palmieri III
Written 2002

A relatively new phenomenon for pharmaceutical antique collectors is the availability of Internet auctions and sales.   This ability has had a dramatic affect on the hobby of collecting.   Obviously there are a wide range of opportunities on the Web with the primary one being eBay.   In some ways it has made the ability of collectors to obtain rare pieces easier yet it has also become more competitive.   There has also been an expected rise in fakes, forgeries and reproductions.   As in live auctions, one must be cautious and view these items for sale with a critical eye.   The reputation of the seller and buyer in both instances is critical.   If you do not trust the other party be cautious or do not deal with them.   What may seem like a unique item often is not.   What seems old, desirable and rare may not be.   Many pharmaceutical companies have numerous reproductions that may appear authentic in a photo or the seller may not recognize it as a new piece.   On the Internet one does not have the ability to hold, to feel, or to examine the object.   With certain items the ability to examine the composition, to see the wood, to inspect a painting under an ultraviolet light, to feel the metal of the object, indeed to smell the artifact is critical in an exact evaluation.   One must be careful to not let desire for an object cloud judgment.   Although there are many downsides to Internet collecting, it is a wonderful opportunity to search the world for an object that is not readily available in a certain geographic area.   Good examples of this type of object are druggist tools such as pill tiles, pill rollers, capsule machines, cachet makers and the like.   Since the demand for these artifacts is limited so is the potential market often limited by geography.   There is also a high volume of more ubiquitous objects such as bottles and trade cards.

There is a plethora of Internet sites for the pharmaceutical collector.   Most large auction houses such as Sotheby's now also have an Internet "office."   Ephemera catalogues have also proliferated on-line and a search using keywords easily identifies many sites---although most have limited stock.   Of course the premier site is eBay.   Originally started as a site to buy and sell PEZ dispensers, has become a gigantic business and without a doubt the best and most well-stocked site.   eBay is simply a broker service bringing buyers and sellers together and does not vet buyers or sellers except in the case of abuse reported by others.   Founded in September 1995, eBay is the world's largest on-line marketplace.   According to eBay press releases it transacted over five billion dollars in gross sales in 2000.   There are approximately 30 million registered users in the eBay "community."   There are millions of items in thousands of categories listed at a time on the site.   With this vast size there are the usual advantages and disadvantages.   At times items are difficult to locate and in any search false drops and items missed are common. One simply obtains a user name on eBay and then can bid.   As in traditional auctions, many items, especially higher priced items have a reserve price, which means it has a minimal acceptable bid known only to the seller.   Most sellers will not disclose the minimum bid even if asked by a potential buyer.   Like local live auctions one sees familiar names bidding often on select objects.   For this reason some buyers will use an alias so that their real name is not recognized or will often use an alias to ward off other bidders who may bid simply knowing that a well known collector is interested in the item and as such it must be a highly valued item.   There are also those who will not bid against one another.   For example two collectors may be friends and have determined they will not bid against each other.

Given the previously mentioned cautions, there are numerous advantages of collecting on the Internet.   Primarily, there is a greater opportunity to see rare items especially drug jars, druggist tools, patent medicine advertisements, apothecary chests and ephemera.   Like live sales, sellers who have such rare items are usually aware of their value and often place reserve prices unknown to the potential buyer on such desirable items.   The Internet auctions also attract a wider selection of buyers than do live auctions.   Competitive bidding is the norm rather than the exception on especially rare items and authentic apothecary tools as well as early, high quality advertising pieces.   Be cautious if you are the only bidder on an item that appears to be highly desirable as it may be a reproduction.   Another advantage is the ability to often see a seller's history concerning feedback from previous buyers.   Especially on eBay, one can easily ask the seller a question and look at feedback for the seller from previous customers.   This feedback is essentially the equivalent of a recommendation.   Avoid sellers with a poor feedback rating or deal with them at your own risk.

One can initially be overwhelmed by the inventory at eBay.   Other sites are woefully inadequate for the pharmaceutical collector.   At eBay one can find a wide assortment of items to collect, and the wise collector quickly learns that hours can be spent chasing false leads.   The collector must quickly decide what to collect and the proper search terms.   For example if one searched for "mortars" and desired pharmaceutical mortars they would find many more references to ammunition mortars while a search for "pestle" would result in significantly fewer false positive hits.   One must also be aware that there are some misspellings on the sites.   The author is amazed at how many variations there are on the spelling of mortar and pestle.

Balances, scales, show globes, pharmacy tools such as pill rollers, advertising items, and apothecary chests as well as a few fine art objects with a pharmacy theme are among the more expensive items and as such are also the more reproduced objects found on Internet auction sites.   Making many of these articles appear aged and distressed is an easy task.   To the novice these are also the objects that are more difficult to authenticate unless they are seen in person and viewed with a critical eye.   In the category of high-end specialty collecting, the Internet auctions have the advantage of allowing a greater geographic area to the seller, and for the potential purchaser the opportunity to view, bid and ultimately purchase a rare object that may elude a collector limited by geography.

There are of course many less expensive items available through Internet auctions such as the ubiquitous bottles, trade cards, mortars, and prescriptions.   One must be ever cautious with bottles and advertising since the reproductions are numerous.   With bottles the reproductions are difficult to spot since many were made by companies intended as a give-away to pharmacists.   Another concern is that while one can view pictures on-line the flaws in the object may not be as readily apparent to the potential purchaser.   This is why a return policy and a truthful seller are critical.   Another potential pitfall is that many sellers will charge a high packing and shipping cost.   Be certain to include the packing and shipping cost in any potential purchase price.   One could pay a reasonable amount for a trade card or another easily shipped item and be surprised by the packing and shipping cost charged by the seller.

Items by search terms on eBay - Oct 3, 2001:
Pharmacy 1078
Drugstore 506
Druggist 194
Pharmacist 322
Apothecary 735
Trade Card 101
Mortar 1922
Pestle 287
Mortar + Pestle 243
Apothecary + Chest 9
Drugstore + Sign 16
Drugstore + Bottle 47
Pharmacy + Bottle 187
Bottle 52164

By using Boolean logic one can reduce the number of incorrect hits on the site.   However the buyer is dependent on the knowledge, honesty, and expertise of the seller in describing the item.   As in live auctions and sales the age of the object is often not as important as the number of collectors who desire the item.   For example, the commemorative tiles and mortars that companies gave away in the 1970s are very popular.

Obviously, eBay is the premier site for collecting.   However there are a few others worthy of mention especially if the collector desires a specific item or has a specific area of interest.   For fine art, prints or pharmaceutical furniture the traditional auction houses usually also have an Internet site.   Sotheby's for example regularly schedules Internet auctions involving medical art, prints, or fine apothecary chests. has numerous auctions per year on line or by FAX where one can find encased postage relating to drugstore items, obsolete advertising currency, ephemera, and patent medicine advertising.   One great advantage of these sites is that a potential buyer or seller can search completed auctions to determine what previous items have made and get a feel for a fair price realizing that condition is critical in determining price and that comparisons are tenuous.

Payment may be made by check, a range of electronic means, or cash.   For smaller transactions this writer has had no negative experiences using and sending cash through the mail.   He has never used a credit card to pay an on-line seller.   Payment by check is usually slower since most sellers will require that the buyer's check clears before sending.   In most instances, while insurance is offered as a rather expensive option, I believe it to be unnecessary.

First, as with a live auction one must view the object, and ask questions of the seller. Do not fall in love with an object; it may not love you back.   Be critical.   Ask yourself questions such as has this item been reproduced? Why am I purchasing the item?   If for my personal collection I can pay a premium over what I could pay if I wanted to resell the item.   What is the condition of the item?

What is the maximum amount I am willing to pay for the piece'?   Ask is the seller credible?   How does the piece fit into the other parts of my collection?   Lastly, will I be devastated if I do not obtain the piece?

A significant difference concerning eAuctions is that since the bidder is usually not on-line at the time of closing one can be a victim of a "sniper."   This is a bidder who places a last minute bid a few cents above your highest bid and if you were not on-line you would lose the item.   Because of this one should place the absolute highest bid that one is willing to pay for the piece and realize that if the other bidder is successful another item will come along some day.   Another approach is to note the time that the auction ends and be on-line at that time following the activity.   Be aware that the ending time for eBay is Pacific time, often in the middle of the night for anyone on the east coast.   One must also be alert for a "shill."   A "shill" is a fake bid usually by the seller to inflate the final selling price of the item or to determine how much a potential buyer is willing to pay for an item.   Be cautious, as there are very few unique items in the world of collecting.

There are a variety of advantages and disadvantages of eAuctions.   One can spend countless hours enjoying the experience or become an eAuction addict if not careful.

As in live, in-person auctions, one must view the item with open eyes and a clear mind.   Internet auctions have allowed the pharmaceutical collecting community a great opportunity to obtain items that may not be readily available in one's geographic area but it does take away some of the "thrill of the hunt," the finding of an object one has been seeking for years or even a lifetime.   Remember if something appears to be too good to be true it probably is too good to be true.   View items with your eyes and bid with your wallet not your heart.   Have fun, enjoy the experience but remember eCaveat Emptor.

About the author:
Anthony Palmieri III, Ph.D. is Assistant Director, Office of Technology Licensing, University of Florida.   He is a registered pharmacist and has published and presented extensively on local pharmacy history, patent medicine advertising, and frontier pharmacy.   In the spirit of full disclosure, as of this writing, his eBay name is Apal50.

To which we must add Amen.

If only you’ve seen the number of these Internet auction fakes our museum members have been exposed to. Some of the fakers even have had the audacity of ripping off labels from our own website [laser printing them out] and then slapping them on what could ONLY have been late twentieth Century bottles, etc.

Please, do be careful.


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Herbie the Leaf