It’s been 20 years now since eBay, originally using the name AuctionWeb, was founded by Pierre Omidyar. The auction site, and more, has seen many changes, whether spinning off PayPal recently, buying and then selling Skype, expanding internationally, or facing competition from the likes of Amazon or Alibaba.
If you want to understand the relevance of eBay — one of those few dot coms that didn’t bomb – take a look at the numbers from its most recent quarter: 157 million active buyers (up 6 percent year over year) and $20.1 billion in merchandise volume. The company’s $33 billion market cap is far from the size of Amazon’s, but is still respectively large (although PayPal’s is $10 billion higher).
But instead of understanding eBay as a collection of numbers, think of it as an unusual collection of products that has expanded over its 20 years. Whether stuffed animals, electronics, heavy industrial equipment, baby products, sporting goods, or video games, the range of items has grown to hundreds of categories. There’s even one called “weird stuff.” (Anyone need an alien in a jar of green plasma?)
Here is a collection of some of the more unique items offer and purchased through eBay during the last two decades. Whether it says something about the company, or the people who use it, is for you to decide.
Broken laser pointer
Purchase price: $14.83
This was the first item ever listed on the site in 1995. Pierre Omidyar was testing his code and put up his broken pointer, which he had planned to throw away. Instead, it sold for $14.83 to someone who claimed to be a collector.
Purchase price: $3,000,100
Famous physicist Albert Einstein wrote a letter in 1954 to philosopher Erik Gutkind questioning the existence of a deity. Fifty-eight years later it showed up on eBay with an asking price of $3 million. The auction house that handled the transaction speculated that final price might hit triple that. Not quite: the final price was just over the asking price. But that was still a tidy profit, given that the seller had purchased the letter in 2008 for $404,000.
The original Hollywood sign
Purchase price: $450,400
Someone who wanted a piece of entertainment history got it in 2005 by buying the original Hollywood sign. A real estate company first erected the famous landmark in 1923 for $21,000. By the 1970s, it had started to fall apart and a new sign was put up. The original was then put into storage for years by a nightclub promoter, who had bought it from the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. Someone else bought it in 2003 for “six figures,” selling pieces in frames and on necklaces. But he said he didn’t have time to do anything else with the sign, and so auctioned it off. The opening figure was $300,000.
Purchase price: $700,000 and then $1.25 million
Yes, Bridgeville was the town that no one wanted, at least for too long. Once owned by a family called Lapple, the town became the first town ever listed on eBay’s real estate site. The initial high bidder backed out and the town ultimately went for $700,000 in 2002. Then it went back onto eBay in 2006 to be sold again, this time for $1.25 million.
The meaning of life
Purchase price: $3.26
And here you’ve been struggling all these years to understand the world and your place in it. If only you had known in 2000, you could have bought the answer for next to nothing. As the seller wrote, “I have discovered the reason for our existence and will be happy to share this information with the highest bidder.”
“Virgin Mary” grilled cheese sandwich
Purchase price: $28,000
A work-from-home jewelry designer offered a ten-year-old grilled cheese sandwich that had one bite taken out of it. The seller said that she saw a face staring at her from the sandwich and so had kept it in a plastic box. There were dozens of bids, with an online casino paying the winning bid. It was willing to spend “as much as it took” to gain ownership of “a part of pop culture.” The listing had been pulled temporarily when eBay decided that the entire thing was a hoax, but eventually put it back up after being convinced that the seller was serious and would deliver the item.
Purchase price: $1,350
Doesn’t everyone want a cornflake with the shape of the state of Illinois? No? Well, apparently enough did for two sisters to sell theirs in 2008. But it took a couple of tries. The first time around, eBay pulled the listing because it violated the company’s policy against selling food. So the sisters relisted the time, only promising a coupon redeemable for the piece of cereal. It was bought by the owner of a trivia website. He had tried to buy what was advertised as the world’s largest cornflake before, but it split into three pieces during shipping.