“That old cracked up uke? Oh, give me a hundred dollars.” The year was 1999 and I was in a pawn shop in one of the big cities I frequented at least once a month then. My intent was to buy used musical instruments which I could put a little work into and resell for a profit on eBay, the popular online auction website. The ukulele was an afterthought, discovered hanging on the wall while I was waiting for the clerk to find the case to a nice professional trumpet, for which I had negotiated a fair price. The old Martin uke was battered, with a crack in the back, and missing a couple of strings, but I thought that it should surely be worth the price and agreed to pay it.
Upon reaching home, I did as I always do, researching the instrument, finding to my gratification that it was a fairly rare, 80 year-old instrument, made of Hawaiian Koa wood. Not being able to find an authoritative resale price, I started an auction with a reserve price much higher than I actually believed the battered instrument would bring. To my surprise, the first bid reached the reserve price! After that, my bewilderment increased each day of the seven day auction, as the bids mounted up, raising the price $1000 per day from the original $1800 bid. My son’s friends watched the auction each day at school, incredulous that an old beat-up ukulele could actually bring such a price. At the end of that seven days, the final auction price for this “oh, and I’ll take that too” purchase of mine, stood at an astounding $9000! Nine thousand dollars!
I had spent a couple hundred dollars more, when it became obvious that the instrument was valuable, to have an appropriate hard case overnighted to me, and the auction site took a fair amount of the proceeds as a commission, so I actually had invested something between five and six hundred dollars in the deal, but I can safely say that this was the highest percentage profit I have ever made on a purchase, either before or after. The congratulations were flying, from the high school boys, who were in awe of the whole process, to colleagues in the music business, who had also watched the auction with keen interest. But I actually tell the story almost with shame, because I have never felt so distraught in making a sale. It just felt wrong! To this day, people who hear the story assure me that there was nothing to feel guilty about.
Their words remain unconvincing still. I understand that the auction process allows folks who really desire something, to pay as much as they are willing to spend, regardless of the real value of the item. The man who purchased the ukulele was beside himself with glee. He was the new owner of the only Martin Style 3K Tenor ukulele known to be in existence then and it filled out his nearly complete Martin uke collection. He was more than content. But, I wasn’t. It’s funny how events affect your subconscious choices. Within a year, I had stopped making the monthly trips to big cities to scour the local pawn shops and junk stores. I explained it to those who asked, that I had found the “Holy Grail” and could never top the experience, so the thrill was gone, but actually, over the intervening years, I have come to realize that the opposite is true. I’m afraid that it could happen again. You see, in that week that the auction was in process, I got a good look at the greed that was inside of me. I actually found myself disappointed when the auction ended at $9000! Why not $10,000 or $15,000? There was real money to be made and I wanted more! I had never known an experience like this and put simply, I was shamed by the desires it awoke in me. And, I don’t want to experience those feelings again.
I sell items at a reasonable profit every day. I don’t experience any guilt about that. It is the system of economics which makes our culture thrive and rise above many others. I have made a living in providing products which I believe are relevant to our culture and the fact that my business is successful attests to that relevancy. I have recounted the story of my triumph/shame only to shine the light on how an event that most would view as a huge success, can actually be a huge disappointment to those who see if from a different perspective.
The experience of the Martin uke is just another gauge, a reference point, if you will, that shapes who I am and how I want to live my life. There is nothing to praise in it, but much to be learned from it. How I wish I had met the test better, but perhaps, if the opportunity ever arises again, I’ll pass with flying colors. Where there’s life, there’s hope…
“…Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us and sometimes, they win.”