The short letter quoted above, dated September 14, 1923, came to my attention in late February. A Sherlockian collector on the East coast—and a Friend of our Sherlock Holmes Collections—alerted us to its existence and the fact that it was being auctioned on ebay. A link to the item was provided by our collector-friend and so I looked at the description and images on the ebay site. Along with the letter was the original envelope, addressed to “The Chief Librarian, Public Library, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.” The reactions of a couple of our local Friends of the Holmes Collections were unanimous—we had to have this item for the Library. And so began “The Adventure of the ebay Auction.”
My initial reaction was the same. Doyle’s letter, with its local connection to Minneapolis, was too good to pass up. But I had no idea about proper library procedure in acquiring items through online auctions. I knew that we could—and do—purchase items through traditional auctions. But online auctions are slightly different animals. After conferring with colleagues in the acquisitions department it was determined that the best approach was for me to purchase the item and then seek reimbursement for my expenses.
Unfortunately, this scenario presented a set of problems: I did not have an ebay account, a PayPal account (used by most sellers on ebay to facilitate purchases), no experience with bidding in such an auction, and perhaps not enough money of my own to cover the purchase. Also, the clock was ticking. It was now the last day of the auction, which ended at 3:58 pm. I spent the latter part of the morning and early afternoon attacking each of the problems. In short order I established my ebay account, set up and linked a PayPal account with my bank and ebay accounts, received financial backing from one of our Friends, and received valuable tips from my colleague, Lisa Vecoli, who is an old-hand on ebay. Her final admonition was to settle on my maximum bid and to use a figure that was a bit unusual (so that I would not lose out on an item by a few pennies or dollars). About ninety minutes before the auction ended I settled on a maximum bid and submitted it to ebay. All that remained was the waiting.
The waiting was excruciating. The Doyle letters had been online for five days and yet, when I posted my bid, I was the sole bidder. No one else had expressed an interest with another bid. The time remaining on an auction is posted above the description of the item. When the timer hits one hour remaining the numbers turn red and count down by minutes and seconds. Somewhere around 45 minutes remaining I needed to leave my chair and attend to some other business. When I returned, the timer was under 30 minutes. No other bids appeared. I nervously sat in my chair, tapping my fingers, bouncing my foot, and then got up to attend to another errand. With about 10 minutes remaining I stayed glued to my chair, muttering “Come on, come on…” to myself, hoping that no one would swoop in at the last moment and bid the item higher. The red numbers continued their countdown. 5 minutes, 4, 3, 2. At ninety seconds I was locked in to the screen, muttering, tapping, bouncing, and hoping. I was still the sole bidder. The seconds continued to roll by. Under a minute the countdown continued second by second. 40 seconds, 30, 20, 10. I’d been told that some bidders act in the last seconds. I recalibrated a new maximum bid, just in case I needed to go higher. 5 seconds, 4, 3, 2, 1. There were no last-second bidders. I’d won the auction! The letter was mine (with an ultimate home in the Sherlock Holmes Collections).
I surged out of my chair with a whoop, a holler, and fist pumps through the air. Those in the office knew what was up and shared in the excitement. Lisa was down the hall, teaching a class. Earlier, before she left for class, I told her that I might interrupt her session by coming into the room and giving her a “thumbs up.” I did exactly that. Happily, her class was engaged in some activity that didn’t require her immediate attention and so we gave each other “high fives” and celebrated the moment together. She was as happy as I was. With a certain bounce in my step I came back into the office, still pumping the air with my fist, and tried to settle down for a few more moments of work before calling it a day.
The next day, with all accounts now verified, I logged into ebay, went to my personal page, found the Doyle description, and hit the “pay now” button on the screen. Within moments the transaction was complete. A few days later a small box containing the letter and envelope arrived in my mailbox. The editorial board for our Holmes newsletter (on which I sit) has already determined that the Doyle letter will be the lead article for our June issue. So ends “The Adventure of the ebay Auction.” But our excitement in sharing this new acquisition with you is just beginning.
This post also appears--with images--on the U of M Archives and Special Collections blog, Primary Sourcery