We have reported in the past on buying santos at auctions. The internet is the new high-tech way to buy virtually anything on-line, including on-line auctions. One such on-line auction service is ebay. We have been watching different santos appear on ebay and thought we would attempt to buy a santo and report on our success or failure. ebay, started a few years ago, has recently experienced phenomenal popularity. They were a high flying stock at their initial offering and sales were unbelievable. But with such high demand brings a major problem, the overloading of the system and crashes. More on this later. To use ebay you must register and get a password. We highly advise doing this way in advance of trying to buy something because it takes a little time but costs nothing. You can find all the things you are interested in by entering keywords in SEARCH. If it comes up negative try different versions. We first tried ebay looking for elusive beanie babies then graduated to filling out a china pattern and on a whim looked for santos. When you find sections you like - santos, folk art, paintings, or whatever - mark them as your favorites and they will be easier to find again. They also have a new section called the Gallery, where items with photos are available and you can scan a whole screen of images at a time making browsing faster. We like it much better than reading all the line descriptions with catchy phrases.
When you enter santos into the SEARCH you get a few pages of them but don't get too excited - they are not all New Mexican santos. (Make sure you enter santos - plural, even though you are just looking for one because this is what the listing is). There are religious santos from Mexico, Latin America, unknown origins, and New Mexican. But there are also Cartier Santos Watches, David Santos Guitar Picks, Playgirl Monica de Santos, art by Santos Zuniga, Santos coffee, and other artists with the name of santos. Many of the individual entries have pictures. We wouldn't even attempt to bid on anything that we couldn't see some evidence of their appearance. Of course some pictures are better than others. The first New Mexican santo we found in about three months appeared in late June. The picture seemed to have all the right things to make it a New Mexican Anthony bulto. The seller was from Virginia and knew a little but not much. The bidding started at $130. We advanced by $20 and were outbid. We finally bid $200 and the automatic advancement made our bid $182.50 for a few days. You can bid what you are comfortable with and ebay will only advance the minimum. They try to be fair.
We were comfortable with our bid but then the worst possible thing happened. Three hours before the bidding on the santo closed, the ebay system crashed. We had no idea when everything went down if we were the high bidder. We also did not know what ebay would do when the system was back up. Would the time be extended on the bidding and we not know it. We continued to try and get into the system with no luck. With one hour and twenty-nine minutes left in the auction, ebay was functioning again. We were still the high bidder. Unlike a live auction, where two people can battle it out with bids for an indefinite amount of time, ebay is more like a silent auction. When the time is up the high bidder on the computer is the winner. So if you really want something you will sit on the bid page for the last few minutes in case there is a last minute bid. You need nerves of steel or just be so casual about the whole thing that you don't care.
We logged on for the last three minutes. To place a bid takes almost a half a minute depending on how fast you type and how fast you are at remembering your password. In the last ten minutes of the auction our machine crashed and had to be rebooted. Anxious moments, but we got back on line with a minute left. Using the refresher option (very cool) we were able to watch the last minutes in almost real time. No one bid against us and we had ourselves what we thought was a New Mexican santo for $182.50 plus $8.50 shipping.
After the auction ends the buyer and seller are supposed to get in touch with each other by email within three days. We emailed within one minute. Besides the usual pleasantries we asked if he could tell us how he got the santo. He failed to answer the question but we put a note in the envelope with his money in hopes that he would answer and reveal some secrets. The next day we purchased a money order and mailed it off to Virginia. You could have send a personal check but it delays the sending of the item because on the other end the seller waits for the check to clear. We were confident the seller was reputable because he had 40 good transaction stars and no negative ones. We had 11. It is good etiquette to leave comments, on both sides after the transaction is complete. His last auction on ebay he sold an antique auto tire gauge. We waited with bated breath to see what we had bought and if it was New Mexican and how old. We received an email when our money order arrived, most people who sell on ebay seem to have unusually good manners, and we were told that the seller bought the santo at an estate auction in Florida and "from the looks of the other objects in the sale, it appeared that the owners traveled a lot". Not much but a start. It took days for the santo to be delivered by Priority Mail. In the meantime we checked other ebay santo auctions. There was a Bolivian San Antonio being auctioned from La Paz that was in the $600 range. No more New Mexican santos though there was a strange box-like item with santos painted on it supposedly from northern New Mexico. Finally the package arrived by U.S. mail. We opened it with great anticipation. It was triple boxed and packed very well. It was a small santo that has lived a hard life. Its arms and hands were gone and the face was well worn. We saw both of these problems in the photo and it was no surprise. The color was unusually good. We had a sneaking suspicion the Anthony was not New Mexican so we took it to our two experts, Marie Romero Cash and Charlie Carrillo. Both agreed that it was an old Puerto Rican santo. All agreed that Anthony had seen a hard life. It was also agreed that for under $200, the santo was a good buy. It would have been a better buy if it had been New Mexican but still a good purchase. The Anthony now joins our New Mexican Anthonys in the "Our Saints Among Us" traveling exhibit. It is a good teaching tool.
As with any auction, ebay is you buy "as is". When you can't see an item in person you take a chance. If you get something that isn't what you thought it would be you can't get your money back or return the item. In a case of a blatant fraud you can complain to ebay and they might ban the person from future auctions if the reason were really strong. You can leave bad feedback to warn future buyers. The basic question is with any auction, what is your comfort level in bidding? And if the item turned out to be a real stinker, yes, you would be mad at yourself, but you didn't cause yourself any true financial damage. Auctions are a form of gambling. It can be fun but there is a downside. Recently we have seen several contemporary, authentic santos by known santeros, as well as some santos from the Gallegos Collection being sold by the Elkhart Collection in Santa Fe on ebay. We have found that you can find just about anything on ebay if you wait long enough.
Barbe Awalt is co-editor of Tradición Revista and co-author of Charlie Carrillo: Tradition & Soul and Our Saints Among Us: 400 Years of New Mexican Devotional Art both from LPD Press.
First published in Tradicion Revista, Volume 4, No. 4, Winter 1999.
Copyright 1999. May not be reproduced in any form without written permission.