Late-night Sniping for Tolkien Collectibles

by Mike Williams

Snipe vb. sniped; sniping: to shoot at an exposed enemy from a concealed position - sniper n

The time was approximately 1 AM EST. I am still in front of my computer waiting anxiously for the sniping flurry over what I believe are genuine first editions of The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. Seven days ago, the seller listed the books on the Ebay auction ( and the drama began. Now, the clock is ticking down to the last seconds of the auction interval; the end will be a matter of adept reflexes and the chance factors of data packets traveling the internet to the Ebay web site in California.


At first, I was skeptical that the books were first editions, mostly because the seller did not present sufficient detail about the books and did not refer to the unique points that usually characterize a first printing. Since I have never been in the position of trying to verify the first editions of these books, I turned to the major reference in this area: Wayne Hammond's, J. R. R. Tolkien: A Descriptive Bibliography (1993; New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Books). After reading his section on the Allen & Unwin first edition, I came to the conclusion that the major distinguishing feature of a first printing was the presence of uncorrected script on the title page. According to Hammond, Tolkien made a few errors but decided to live with them rather than stop the presses. Corrections were then used in the second printings of FOTR, TT and in the first printing of Return of the King. I scanned the picture in Hammond and sent this as an e-mail attachment to the seller. Sure enough, the seller indicated that the title page was uncorrected (The seller also thought the Tengwar was Greek). I was almost hoping the books were not first printings. If they were not, I could avoid what I knew was going to be a major fight over the bidding for these. Now, I had to figure out what was a reasonable price. I had seen first editions of the complete set at antiquarian book dealer web sites for thousands of dollars. The copies on the auction had no dustjackets and I was not sure of the condition since the seller provided so little detail and I could not actually examine the books. However, armed with the knowledge that these were likely first printings and probably worth a considerable sum even in the worst condition, I turned my attention to auction strategy.

An item runs on Ebay for up to seven days. The seller enters a listing at the Ebay web site that includes a text description, optional picture, minimum bid, reserve bid, item location and other details. Bidders enter amounts on a form at the web site. At the end of the auction period, the highest bidder takes the item. Seller and high bidder then communicate using e-mail to complete the transaction. In computer terms, Ebay is maintaining a large database of items that is periodically updated by the bidders and sellers. At present, there are an amazing 530,000+ items auctioned off every seven days. Items include everything from Bronze-age weapons to real estate.

A typical auction strategy is to wait until the very last moments of an auction and enter in a high bid. In this way, the auction may close and you win the item before other bidders can enter a bid higher than yours. This bidding strategy is called "sniping". It is very effective because people are naturally inclined to bid low. The only way to counter this strategy is to place extremely high bids or snipe the item yourself. Unfortunately, the most desirable items are associated with a flurry of last-minute sniping by a large number of bidders. Some enterprising Ebay bidders have even designed computer software that automates sniping. I certainly expected a snipe attack given the desirable nature of the first editions and the general behavior of the hard-core Tolkien collectors lurking on Ebay (myself among the party).

The early bidding on the books topped off at $85 and stayed there for five days. My plan was to enter a $410 bid during the last 30 seconds of the auction. Now, the very last seconds of the auction were approaching: one minute, then 30 seconds. My bid was all set to go. My cursor was hovering over the Submit button. One mouseclick and my commitment would fly through cyberspace. At 20 seconds, I made the click and hoped for a win. By the time my bid was processed, the auction interval was essentially over. I went back to the item listing and discovered, to my chagrin, that two other bidders jumped in right after me, both with higher bids than mine - sniped again! So it goes. I perform another search for all the stuff I collect and then call it a night. In the words of Scarlet O'Hara: "Tomorrow is another day".

Some Tips on Using Ebay

The first step is to log onto the Ebay site. ( You will notice a multitude of categories, everything from pre-Columbian artifacts to computer equipment. You will probably peruse these out of curiosity. I also recommend reading through the general Ebay documents at the Ebay Welcome Wagon. In the early days of the auction, I actually used to review listings. Now, with 500,000 items available, this is impossible. I go right to the Search function and use it to find sets of items that interest me. The key to Tolkien collecting on Ebay is using the correct search terms and format. Here is the best search entry for Tolkien items: (Tolkien,Hobbit,"Lord of the Rings","Middle Earth","Middle-earth"). You must include the parentheses. This search string will find any item that contains these terms in the title or description. Fortunately, Tolkien is such an unusual name that it will not appear in anything that is outside the interest of the Tolkien collector. Here is the next string: (Gandalf,Galadriel,Aragorn,Gimli,Frodo,Samwise,Barliman,Legolas,Tolkein,Tolkin) -Tolkien -Lord. This will search for the names of the major characters without including the results of the previous search. This search is handy for items that refer only to the character name, such as Royal Doulton figures. Royal Doulton collectors and dealers often do not think to put the terms Tolkien, Middle-Earth and Lord of the Rings in their item title or descriptions. This search will also pick up items for which the seller has entered the wrong spelling for Tolkien's name.

Here is a recent listing of Tolkien-related items on Ebay that was created using these search strategies. There are approximately 100 Tolkien-related items up for bidding at any one time.

Item#,Item Title,Current Bid Price,#Bids,Ending Date & Time
21294878 Brothers Hildebrandt 1 Card Set [PIC!],$3.00,1,07/21,13:43
21299436 CED THE HOBBIT,$5.00, 0,07/21,14:18
21335479 Lord of the Rings 2lp Picture disc's,$10.00,0,07/21,18:12
21369121 MIDDLE EARTH LIMITED ED ccg ,$12.50, 1,07/21,20:40
21889612 ** LORD OF THE RINGS ** on VHS,$15.50,7,07/22,02:30
21413160 The Lord of the Rings Tarot Deck & Book, Set,$15.00,1,07/22
21678394 76 Limited Middle Earth CCG Cards,$12.00,1,07/22,11:17
21678765 Two Middle Earth Promo Cards,$7.00, 0,07/22,11:21
21679107 Un-opened Middle Earth the Dragons,$5.00,1,07/22,11:24
21461869 Middle Earth CCG Dw. Ring of Bavor's,$2.00,0,07/22,16:59
21462237 Middle Earth CCG Wizards Fell Beast,$3.00, 1,07/22, 17:02
21462681 Middle E Wizards Khamul the Easterling,$3.00,0,07/22,17:05
21463034 Middle Earth Wizards Wizard's Fire,$2.00, 0,07/22,17:07
21463455 Middle Earth Dragons Known to An Ounce,$2.00,1,07/22,17:10
21463685 1ST ED. - THE SILMARILLION ,$6.00, 0,07/22, 17:11
21463910 Middle Earth Wizards Lim. Silent Watcher,$2.00,0,07/22,17:12
21485559 Middle Earth "Dragons" Booster 36,$24.99, 0,07/22,19:07
21486020 Middle Earth Dark Minions Booster 36 Pks,$24.99,1,07/22,19:10
21538859 Lord Of The Rings soundtrack--pic disc!!,$15.00,8,07/23,08:27
21551720 Middle Earth: White Hand Booster Box $36.89, 9,07/23,10:54
21593869 TOLKIEN SET BOOKS [PIC!],$9.99, 0,07/23,17:16
21596910 COMPLETE GUIDE TO MIDDLE EARTH,$5.00,0,07/23,17:35
21599912 J.R.R. Tolkien Middle Earth Map Puzzle,$21.50, 9,07/23,17:54
21616494 Famous Monsters #151 - G/VG [PIC!],$4.00,1,07/23,19:19
21625117 MIDDLE EARTH: THE WIZARDS,$3.00, 0,07/23, 20:00
21626157 The ANNOTATED HOBBIT HC/DJ,$9.99,1,07/23,20:05
21629200 Tolkien Poster - "Lord of the Rings",$16.00, 6,07/23,20:22
21638123 Tolkien,The Authorized Biography,1st, HB,$6.00,0,07/23,21:16
21638509 Middle Earth CCG - Elf-Lord Revealed,$6.00, 0,07/23,21:19
21638998 Middle Earth CCG - Chill Them With Fear,$7.00,0,07/23,21:23
21887526 ** THE LORD OF THE RINGS ** on CED,$9.95, 0,07/24,00:22
21888954 J.R.R. Tolkien's THE HOBBIT on CED,$4.95,0,07/24,01:34
21652122 Middle Earth Dragons Expansion Booster,$10.50, 2,07/24,01:37
21665926 Fionavar Tapestry (3 books) by Guy Kay,$4.25,3,07/24,08:34
21906943 2 picture disc LP record ,$19.99,0,07/24,08:56,
21675250 LP-Tolkien Reads & Sings from The Hobbit,$8.50,5,07/24,10:41
21676041 LP-Read by Tolkien from Lord of the Rings $5.00,1,07/24,10:50
21681146 Middle Earth Limited 250-card lot,$13.01,5,07/24,11:47
21684607 LORD of the RINGS Audio, $39.99 ,0,07/24,12:22
21699667 Middle Earth Ltd. Wiz. Lot #1 Rare Sites,$9.99 ,0,07/24,14:59
21700113 Middle Earth CCG Dwar. Rings Set.,$9.99,0,07/24,15:03
21700361 Middle Earth CCG: Pair of Nazguls Ltd.,$9.99 ,0,07/24,15:07
21700667 Middle Earth Ltd One Ring/ Arkenstone,$17.99,5,07/24,15:10
21700948 Middle Earth 'Wizard's' Lot #2,$5.00 ,0,07/24,15:13
21701873 Middle Earth Unlimited Rare Lot of 24,$9.99,0,07/24,15:22
21703115 Gandalf from the Lord of the Rings,$15.95,1,07/24,15:33
21703846 Balrog from the Lord of the Rings,$15.95,0,07/24,15:40
21703883 Middle Earth Dragons Lot of 19 Rares,$9.99,1,07/24,15:41
21704493 Middle Earth Lidless Eye - 10 Rares,$9.99,1,07/24,15:47
21705217 Middle Earth Against Shadow Lot of 16,$9.99,1,07/24,15:53
21705109 Lord of the Rings - Boxed Set ,1965,$31.00,4,07/24,15:53
21997109 THE HOBBIT -GOLD COVER$10.00 ,0,07/24,18:27
21792312 Middle Earth CCG Dark Minions Box,$19.99,0,07/25,11:23
21792692 Middle Earth CCG Wizards Boost,$19.99,1,07/25,Box,11:26
21793514 Middle Earth CCG Wizards Unlimited,$19.99,1,07/25,11:34
21802181 Tolkien - Middle-Earth Role Playing ,$5.50,6,07/25,12:47
21808072 ~~SILMARILLION-1st Am. !!!,$9.00 ,0,07/25,13:33
21815521 Grenadier Figures Lord Of The Rings, $9.75,1,07/25,14:28
21845023 Bakshi LORD OF THE RINGS promotional,$4.00,1,07/25, 18:25
21849428 Middle Earth CCG - 100 Lidless Eye, $2.00,0,07/25,18:50
21855334 THE HOBBIT! BOOK & RECORD,$20.00,0,07/25,19:19
21900928 J.R.R. Tolkiens Two Towers PBK [PIC!],$1.00 ,0,07/26,07:50,
21907497 Tolkiens the Hobbit Pbk [PIC!],$1.00 ,0,07/26,09:01
21939575 WAR OF THE RING (SPI) Tolkien,$41.00,7,07/26,Fans, 13:10
21967039 ARIEL THE BOOK OF FANTASY VOL 2 ,$1.00,0,07/26,15:57
21992414 MIDDLE EARTH LIDLESS EYE LTD.,$1.50 ,0,07/26,18:06
21996467 Collection of Games,$1.00,1,07/26,18:24
22034491 45 SICENCE FICTION PAPERBACKS,$10.00,0,07/26,21:24
22069140 Middle Earth CCG Lot of 3,$1.00,0,07/27,10:36
22093301 Lord of the Rings Pewter Necklace ,$1.00,1,07/27,16:20
22113185 120 PCS 5.25" DISK LOT,$3.00,1,07/27,17:06
22139004 BOOK -RECORD THE HOBBIT 1977,$3.25,1,07/27,19:13
22163662 GIMLI Lord of the Rings Pewter Figure ,$9.99,0,07/27,21:13
22164191 @@ BOROMIR Pewter Figure, $9.99,0, 07/27, 21:16
22164988 @ Elan NAZGUL Pewter Figure [PIC!],$9.99,0,07/27,21:22

As you can see, the titles are rather cryptic. Some have some odd characters thrown in so that they will grab your attention. Each title links you to a full description of the item, an optional photograph and the bidding section. Since the title can only be 40 characters, sellers use abbreviations (e.g. CCG=Collectible Card Game). The full range of collectibles are listed at one time or another, including first editions of books, Tolkien criticism, fan magazines, figures, belt buckles, audiotapes, calendars, videos and games. Since the Ralph Bakshi LOTR movie was associated with a fair amount of merchandising, many Ebay items are associated with the movie. However, even these items were not generally available pre-internet. Since the typical person had no way of making them available to collectors before Ebay, I expect they were sitting in closets stored away. Ebay has now become my major source for Tolkien collectibles as well as the other things I collect. Some of the most unusual items I have found are not necessarily the most highly valued. These include a "Gandalf for President" button, the license plate frame, Frodo Lives button, posters and other parts of the Fellowship set distributed with the Bakshi LOTR movie, an 8-track tape of the soundtrack from the LOTR movie, the 35mm trailer for the movie and a hand-made sterling silver ring in the shape of Gollum. More common items include first editions of Tom Bombadil and Farmer Giles of Ham, Royal Doulton figures, calendars, puzzles and role playing game sets. At present, I am tracking a vintage Fillmore Wes Wilson poster that states, "Haight Ashbury - Come to Middle Earth". I hope my sniping skills prevail on that one.

Title I don't want to leave the impression that sniping is the only way bidding works on Ebay. I have purchased almost all of the items I described without sniping. Sniping occurs on the very unusual and desirable items for which the value is essentially unknown. Items with established values are usually bid up to some factor of that value, then the bidding stops.

There is no cleaner expression of free enterprise than an auction, and I have always preferred the values set by an honest auction. I think this is one aspect that makes them so entertaining. Values are invented on the spot by the expression of desire on the part of the bidders. No matter how expert and honest the dealer, the values set by such an interested party are necessarily biased in favor of the dealer. They are selling a commodity and need to establish the highest price. The “true” price, set by the demand of the collectors, may be much lower, or, as I have discovered on Ebay, much higher.

Title In the end, I have been very impressed with the honesty and genuine integrity of the typical Ebay seller and bidder. The worst that has ever happened to me is that some sellers have neglected to provide sufficient information about items and my expectations were incorrect as a result. I have had one or two bidders who did not follow-through on the transactions. The system is largely self-regulated. Aside from some basic policing, there is very little the Ebay administration can do to monitor these transactions. I think the system works because everyone has so much to lose if it doesn't.

If you are a Tolkien fan then you should give the auction a try if only to find a common book you may not have already. The auction has the best prices for common editions as well as the collectible ones. In addition, if you have a collectible you would like to sell for the best price, you cannot do better than Ebay. In that regard, if anyone has the brass belt buckle depicting Gandalf, please get it out there. I will be the first bidder.








  A very high quality, beautiful sword. This would make a great decorative gift for the shield maiden in your life, or someone who just loves equestrian design.


  Now that the movies have largely run their merchandising course, this may be the best time to purchase high quality jewelry at discounted prices. Use these as gifts for years to come.


  It appears that any game that could possibly have a Lord of the Rings theme has been produced. These include Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit, Backgammon and Dominoes.



  Figures from the movies include a large action figure series. There are separate figure sets and color schemes for each movie. The highest quality figures were made by Sideshow WETA. Although these are expensive, they sell out quickly and will likely keep their values.

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