(Eric Shansby)

Gene Weingarten is on vacation. The column originally ran in July 2003.

I love eBay. I particularly love the online flea market for its irrepressible anarchy. For $12 you can get Hermann Scherchen’s classic recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp Minor, or you can get a clock that farts the hour.

EBay, like most of the Web, is essentially unedited. This results in incidents of aggressively original spelling — it was not until I saw the photo accompanying it that I realized “Terk Wirks jeworry” was, in fact, turquoise jewelry. Virtually anything can, and does, go up for sale, which affords a fascinating lesson in what we, as a people, value. I have watched, transfixed, as various items I thought would never sell attracted multiple bidders. One was a plastic seat that converts any ordinary pail into a toilet.

Can anything find a market? One day recently, I tried to find out. I put four items up for auction:

1. My own signature. I described this item in lavish detail, as though it were Honus Wagner’s (“portions of the name, particularly the right wall of the ‘w’ are a little faint, but ...”). What I did not do, because frankly there was no honest answer for this, was explain why this particular item might be of interest to anyone.

2. A joke. I said I was in possession of “the greatest joke ever told,” and promised to reveal it to the highest bidder. “People of the opposite sex will think this the best joke they ever heard, and very possibly offer you their bodies in gratitude.” I actually had a particular joke in mind, a very strange and excellent one I had heard years ago from a professional humorist who got it from a professional stand-up comic, who never used it in his routines because it was too weird.

3. A piece of crap. Specifically, two items I found in my basement: a flaccid rubber sleeve that had once contained a flashlight, and a chunk of aluminum from a busted lamp. I glued them together, and took a picture. I confessed in my ad that I did not know what this item was but it was “strangely beguiling” with a “tension of design between the thin, supple rubber and the hard, unyielding aluminum.” And:

4. The least valuable item possible. It was the key to a Chrysler Sebring that had been rented by a friend of mine and then stolen from in front of my house. The thief had behaved in the fashion favored by idiot car thieves everywhere: He hot-wired the vehicle, drove five blocks in giddy abandon, then pancaked it against a light pole. I reported, correctly, that it had been stripped of personal belongings, including “a deluxe extension-pole grabber of extreme sentimental value to its owner.” All my friend was left with was the key to a car that no longer existed. My pitch? “Own a piece of Washington, D.C., crime history!”

You are probably thinking, Who the hell would buy these things?

Patty and Paul Quinzi would. The Austin couple bought the car key after a fierce week-long bidding war among six people that sent the final purchase price up to 29 cents. I e-mailed the Quinzis to ask why they went for it. Patty wrote back: “We, too, knew the value of a good extension-pole grabber, and felt your friend’s pain.”

More than 90 people read the ad for the joke, and four bid on it. The winner, at 41 cents, was Brandi McCarn, a student at North Carolina State University. I told it to her, and she declared it well worth the money. I would tell it to you, too, but for two factors:

1. It would be violating my sacred eBay promise to Brandi, and

2. I would get canned faster than albacore tuna.

The piece of crap sold for $2 to an eBayer who calls himself Kidneystone. He told me he bought it because (and I am paraphrasing here) what the hell, you know, man, like, whatever.

And last, the signature. Oscar Wilde wrote that the cynic knows the price of everything but the value of nothing. Well, this cynic got a lesson in the economics of value. Thirty people eyeballed this item, weighed its worth, and not one offered even a single penny.

E-mail Gene at weingarten@washpost.com. Find chats and updates at washingtonpost.com/magazine.

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