It seems you can’t escape that well known online auction site, no matter where you go! But have historians been slow to pick up on its advantages?
I’ve been using ebay for some time now to track down all kind of historical items. It comes into its own for trying to get hold of rare, out of print books. I’ve got hold of some very old military history books that would have been murder to find in a normal bookshop. And a real gem that I managed to track down was the Royal Navy’s official Stoker’s handbook from 1941. This is the book that my great-uncle Tommy would have been issued with when he joined the Navy during the War.
I also managed to chance upon a cracking large photograph of a Motor Torpedo Boat when I was researching Fairmile Dog Class Boats for an article. Having trouble getting hold of illustrations, compared to their lesser known cousins the Vospers MTB’s, I searched on ebay and found a great photo of an ex-wartime MTB moored up in a Devon river, crewed by Girl Sea Scouts!
I’ve also managed to find some lovely postcards of ships. One of the SS Laconia, the ship that my great-uncle was torpedoed on in 1942, was the kind that cruise-goers would have sent home in more peaceful times. There are also tons of great photos of Royal Navy ships.
Even when I was studying for my dissertation, I managed to find a number of instruments for sale on ebay that were made by George Stebbing. Although they were all well out of my price range, the curator at our local Museum monitors ebay and I’m glad to say there are probably items in the museums collections that would have cost a lot more had they been purchased at a conventional auction, and the competition may have been even hotter.
You can also find other items of memorabilia, including uniforms, equipment, badges, patches, all sorts. This is where ebay gets a bit murky. You need to be really on top of your game to work out just how much something is worth, and whether it is what the seller claims it is. There are some very reliable handbooks out there that will help you catch out the chancers.
Also, just where do you draw the line? I’ve seen some items for sale that bordered on the insensitive. Father Benson was an airborne Chaplain who was killed at Arnhem, and features in Stuart Mawson’s excellent account Arnhem Doctor. Someone had found what seemed to be his helmet, and was selling it on ebay. Personally, if I found such an item I would feel duty bound to offer it to appropriate museums first. There are no doubt descendants of Benson out there who might like it too. And I still find it really sad when you see people selling their hard earned medals on ebay, no doubt having fallen on hard times.