How to Buy Art Supplies at Online Auctions

By Carrie Lewis in Art Business Advice > General Art Advice

Last week, I shared a few ways to make sure you’re buying high-quality colored pencils. Since that article was geared toward buying art supplies in person, it seems natural to follow up with some tips for art supply shopping online.

I consider myself to be frugal—my husband says I’m cheap (he’s probably right)—so I always look for value. I want to the best quality I can get, but I also want the best price.

So I’ve done more than a little buying from online auctions like eBay, and I’ve made my share of bad purchases. Some were funny. Some were costly. All could have been avoided if I’d been more careful, or if someone had warned me beforehand.

Here’s what I’ve learned, so you won’t have to make the same mistakes I did:

1. The reason why art supplies are sold at auction

There are two primary categories of sellers on online auctions:

A) Private people selling things they don’t want anymore, and

B) People who buy seconds, close-outs, and overstocks at deep discounts, then resell them for a profit.

There’s nothing wrong in buying from either type of seller. However, knowing which category a seller falls into will almost always help you make a better buying decision.

2. Buying art supplies from private sellers

This is a person—artist or not—who bought some art supplies because they wanted to try them or needed them for a workshop. Maybe they received them as a gift. They tried them, didn’t like them, and want to get rid of them.

This seller may not know as much as you do about art supply brands and products as you do, but they are likely to know what they have.

In my experience, private sellers have always been able to tell me which pencils have been used, and whether or not the colors I’m looking for are there. Most of the time, they’ve even had the original container the pencils came in.

With a seller like this, they’re not holding the auction to make money; they just want to get rid of some art supplies they no longer need.

3. Buying art supplies from a reseller

This person buys art supplies in bulk. They may have bought them from an art store or retailer that’s going out of business or reducing inventory. If they’re selling individual items like colored pencils, often they’ve bought large quantities all at once for a discount.

Resellers often purchase seconds from a manufacturer, too. (More on this in a moment.)

When I buy pencils from resellers, usually they are unpackaged and in bulk. I’ve bought several of one color at a time, or “mixed colors”—which is when they reach into their supply, take out a couple of handfuls of pencils and that’s what they sell.

There will most likely be no original containers or paperwork. Chances are, you’ll receive a plain, cardboard box with your art supplies in it.

4. To avoid mistakes, ask “obvious” questions!

I once purchased between 1,000 and 1,500 colored pencils. The price was fabulous and I believed I was getting 1,000 to 1,500 colored pencils. Art pencils.

When I got the box of pencils, I was a bit shocked. Yes, there were Prismacolor pencils and Verithin pencils in the lot, but most of the pencils were not art pencils. They were basic No. 2 lead pencils that had a colored finish on the outside.

Colored pencils. Sort of.

The seller listed them a box of “colored pencils” simply because the pencils were different colors on the outside. I didn’t know I needed to ask about the inside of the pencils. I assumed the seller meant the same thing I mean when I use the phrase “colored pencil.”

It seemed like a fantastic deal. I paid the price and waited with bated breath for all those wonderful colors to arrive. Imagine my dismay upon opening the box and finding 80% to 90% school grade lead pencils, most of which were of such poor quality, they’re not even much good for writing!

In the end, I paid way too much for the few colored pencils I got, spent far too much time sorting through hundreds of pencils, and would have been much better off paying retail for exactly what I wanted.

5. Risks and rewards of buying “factory seconds”

When art supplies are listed as factory seconds, that means that they went through all the proper manufacturing processes, but didn’t pass inspection. Reasons for this failure are many:

• Perhaps the label is incorrect
• Maybe there’s a slight defect somewhere
• Or, the outside color doesn’t match what’s inside (red pencils with green core)

Allowable manufacturing flaws vary from company to company so the problem may be minor or it could be major. Art supplies that do not pass inspection are labeled as seconds: i.e., unfit for normal retail sale.

But they can—and often are—still sold, and they may very well end up being offered on an online auction by someone who purchased them as seconds from the manufacturer. In most cases, they’re perfectly usable if you don’t mind faulty labeling or other minor imperfections.

Of course, the hazard with buying seconds is that you won’t always know why that particular item was rejected by the manufacturer. The seller may not know, either.

The advantage to buying seconds is that they are usually priced well below standard retail, but you are taking a risk in getting something that is unusable.

6. Now, if you’re shopping on Amazon. . .

Amazon is different. When you buy there, you’ll most likely get stock that’s new in the box. (A few sellers may be selling seconds or in bulk, but it’s not very likely.)

It still pays to be prudent and to know which questions to ask, but you shouldn’t have to deal with the same issues that online auction buyers deal with.

The bottom line:

If you buy art supplies from any online source other than a reputable, well-known seller (Dick Blick for example), you need to be aware that even if the purchase price is low, you may end up getting something that’s not exactly what you expect.

• Know what type of seller you’re dealing with
• Ask a lot of questions
• And don’t be afraid to let the deal go if the answers you get aren’t satisfactory

There ARE good deals out there. . . just make sure of what you’re purchasing before you click “buy!”


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