Stateline Story

Going Once, Going Twice, Gone Online

  • May 11, 2004
  • By Genelle Hoban

Coming this month to eBay, the online auction house where you can buy just about anything: a silver 2003 Harley Davidson Glide Anniversary motorcycle autographed by President George W. Bush and all 50 state governors.

And while you're bidding on this one-of-a-kind collector's item, you might browse through that nationwide yard sale on the Internet for the multitude of other goods that state governments are hawking on eBay.

At least 16 states have discovered there's good money in auctioning accumulated state junk online -- everything from bicycles to computers to skateboards and even pairs of long underwear. For buyers with deeper pockets, there are Chevy Camaros, motor homes and even BMW motorcycles stockpiled in state government warehouses and up for grabs to the highest bidder.

Net proceeds from the sale of the Harley Davidson, a biker political junkie's dream valued at $18,000 before celebrity signatures, will go to create a scholarship fund for children of astronauts killed on the job and students who want to study science. Republican Gov. Dirk Kempthorne of Idaho conceived of the fund-raising venture shortly after the Columbia space-shuttle disaster.

But eBay also is helping states multiply their earnings as they unload excess property jamming their storehouses, from Swiss army knives to big screen TVs. Oregon led the way by first selling its surplus on eBay in 1998 and increased yields by more than 250 percent in the first year. EBay, based in San Jose, Calif., has more than 85 million registered viewers.

"Sales of items on eBay grossed double the sale price of similar items sold via traditional disposal methods. The choice was clear that online sales were the future of our program," said Stacey Oller, the operations and finance manager for the state of Oregon's property distribution center. Now, Oregon disposes of more than 98 percent of state surplus property on auctions hosted by eBay and grosses about $8.5 million a year. The cost of posting items on eBay averages about 2 percent, depending on the property sold.

Most of the items Oregon sells on eBay either were confiscated at airports or are stolen property recovered by police but never by the original owner. Owners or heirs of sold items still can collect compensation at both the state and federal levels, state officials say.

Many large items, such as office furniture and police cars, are hand-me-downs from state or even federal agencies, some of which pay Oregon a fee to advertise their cast-off property on the state's well-visited eBay sites.

Currently, Oregon is offering a bicycle with a pizza delivery box for a current bid of $198.01 and assorted corkscrews and bottle openers, going for $13.50 at last check. More of Oregon's treasures can be found under user names such as: oregontrail2000, oregonmotors2000, oregonsurplus2000, and oregonprime2000.

Internet auctions have made shopping easier for both customers and government workers. Previously, workers used to organize Saturday auctions in places such as parking lots and warehouses where items were sold one-by-one, netting miniscule net profits. Bargain hunters had to search around government warehouses and sit through daylong auctions to claim their items. Now customers can shop from their computers at home.

Nevada first experienced eBay by peddling 25 items, resulting in a $16,000 profit in 2003, compared to only $15,000 in profit in 2002 when it sold thousands of items through traditional auctions. The single most expensive item it has sold was an 1891 gold piece that went for $6,100, about its assessed value.

In January 2001, the entire state of West Virginia was posted for sale on eBay and more than 55 bids were placed before the online auction house learned of the joke and took it off the site in just minutes. The highest bid was just $1 short of $100 million, which was almost enough money to fill the state's expected budget hole at the time.

Since May 2001, the Pennsylvania Treasury Department's Bureau of Unclaimed Property has unloaded more than 15,500 items on eBay, totaling more than $800,000 in sales. The state even had a holiday-themed auction for Christmas in which it sold a collection of 54 U.S. quarters that are decades old, a set of salad forks and an incomplete stamp collection. Right now it's offering various flatware and other items -- going for $73 at last check and an assortment of 13 jewelry pieces, current bid $15. Pennsylvania uses the seller name "treasurerhafer."

Rather than using eBay, the federal government runs its own Internet auction Web site, where it sells off seized and surplus property such as a rusty 1953-vintage 56-foot "mechanized landing craft," fit for amphibious assaults. While missing an oil pump and other unspecified parts, it's already attracted six bids and is going for at least $1,830.

Other states that have experimented with e-commerce include Alaska, California, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York, Texas and Washington.

States also are experimenting with online auction strategies in reverse, using them to help governments buy goods and services. States such as Michigan have set up reverse sites where companies can bid for state contracts. 

Tags: Economy