Expert Hacks for Buying Vintage Watches on eBay

Understand the risks before reaping the rewards.

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For vintage watch buyers, eBay is both a blessing and a curse. While it can be a great source for finding interesting watches at solid prices, it can also be a minefield for junky or unoriginal watches. “I’ve bought and sold many pieces on eBay,” said Nick Pardo, a timepiece specialist at vintage watch retailer Analog/Shift. “You have to be aware of the risks and realize you’re rolling the dice a bit, even when things seem to add up.”

For watch collectors who may be seeking a return on investment, genuine original parts matter; on eBay, it’s common to see “Frankenwatches” put together from original but non-matching parts or watches that have been heavily (or poorly) modified or restored. “I generally try to advise people to avoid eBay unless it’s for fun, or a project, or you know what you’re doing,” said Pardo. “I’d be reluctant to spend a significant amount of money on there.”

So, buyers looking to strike gold and see a return on their watch investment should temper their expectations. But those looking for interesting stuff to wear daily on the low end might find eBay a great source. There are a number of ways to keep from getting fleeced on even a more affordable vintage piece. Most of it entails doing your homework and knowing what separates a good version of a watch from a bad one — something that’s made easy by a multitude of online resources. The rest comes down to knowing how to spot when a seller isn’t 100 percent on the up and up. Know that these aren’t guarantees that your new watch will be perfect, and that sometimes taking a risk means the reward is well worth it.

Do your homework. It’s best to go into an eBay purchase with a set plan. Admittedly, browsing eBay is a fantastic way to find old obscure watches you may have never heard of, but once you’re certain there’s a model you want to purchase, take the time to get really acquainted with that specific watch. Watch forums are a great way to enlist the help of folks with more expertise, though Pardo notes that “looking for good examples that have sold, or even Google Images will give you a feel for what [a correct watch] should look like.”

Check the dial. It’s generally accepted that a correct dial is the most important factor when considering whether a watch is in its original state (though there’s reason to believe attitudes may be changing slightly there). Do what you can to check and make sure the dial is original: Look for any crooked or uneven-looking markers or numerals that may be an indicator of a reprinted dial. Fresh, mint-colored luminous material is also a good indicator that a watch has been refinished. Also, while many collectors like the patina on a dial, water stains on a dial are a huge red flag and could mean a watch’s movement has been exposed to water in the past.

Buy the seller. Clear, unaltered shots of the watch are ideal; the more the better. Images that clearly show the watch’s serial numbers and movement are a huge plus (and don’t be afraid to ask for them if they aren’t present). Bountiful and detailed information is important in the listing, too. eBay makes communicating with sellers easy. Ask questions about the originality of the watch and the condition. If you know something looks unoriginal but the seller hasn’t stated so in the listing, ask, and see what the response is. Likewise, if a seller says that something has been refinished or restored, ask for more details on the restoration process. If sellers are reluctant to answer your questions in a straightforward way, consider it a red flag.

Check the seller’s history. The ratings and selling history for sellers can be telling, but for reasons that aren’t immediately obvious. Some sellers game their ratings with phony sales between their own accounts (or a friend’s), so search through the seller’s history for irregular transactions. Pardo also notes that professional watch sellers on eBay (who list several hundred watches simultaneously) are more likely to overcharge. Additionally, sellers who also have multiple versions of a particularly obscure watch also should be considered with heightened scrutiny. “It’s much more likely they’ve been modified, refinished or built from parts,” he said.

Look at completed listings. If you go to “advanced search” on eBay you can specify a search for “completed listings.” This allows you to see watches that have been sold and listings that expired. This is is a great way to get an idea of the real market value of the watch you’re looking for (if you plan on reaching out to make an offer) and will let you see if an item has been listed in the past. If an item has been re-listed, there are usually two reasons: either the watch is overpriced, or there’s something wrong with it.

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