We are all in this together. In an effort to report on the state of different facets of the military collectibles market, Military Trader strives to discover and share the opinions of the hobby’s leading dealers and collectors.
We recently had the privilege to talk with Bob Chatt and Joe Tonelli. Together, the long-time militaria dealers created a new platform for private sellers to conduct online auctions of individual pieces or entire collections. We had several questions about the venture, so we got in touch with the duo to pose our “10 questions.”
We hope you will benefit from our session.
Military Trader: Thanks so much for taking the time to meet with us. You have both be in the hobby for a long time. Why don’t you explain a bit of your military relic background to our readers (how you got your start and then grew your business / hobby up to this point).
Bob Chatt: Both my father and my grandfather dealt in antiques (Indian relics, guns, & coin-op). I guess I was doomed to be a collector. I started collecting militaria when I was 8 years old.
Very early on, they started taking me to the various flea markets to experience the “hunt.” At the age of 12, I set up at a show by myself: the Great Western Gun Show in Los Angeles.
I opened my first store in 1991. It was a cross between militaria & vintage clothing (my other passion). Today, we have one of the largest militaria /vintage clothing showrooms in the world.
Joe Tonelli: My involvement in collectibles started before I was even born! My parents are lifelong collectors of hunting and fishing collectibles. My weekends were spent at flea markets, gun shows, antiques shops, yard sales; in short, anywhere that there may be a chance of finding treasures.
For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated with the Second World War. Both my grandfather and great uncle were veterans of WWII. They gave me their souvenirs, and that was it. I was off to the races.
Over the years I’ve had extensive collections in different areas, German daggers, German headgear, painted flight jackets, and named US groupings, finally US headgear and its related insignia 1776-1980s.
I have always bought and sold while collecting. It was the way to support the hobby I loved. There have also been times when I was able to support myself and my hobby by being a dealer and consultant for private collectors and auction houses.
In the early 2000s, I began dealing in original military photographs. This quickly turned into a full-time job for me and three other employees.
At one point, I was averaging sales of 4,000 items a week on eBay. This was long before eBay had their current seller program. It cost $1.35 just to list a single item (that is before any final vales fees).
So, in 2008, I launched my own online auction: Tonelli Auction and Collectibles. It was in operation until 2013.
That same year, I decided to take a break from collecting. That lasted until 2018, when I started actively collecting again.
Now I am a Senior Superintendent in the construction field in Los Angeles, California. I still buy and sell to help support the hobby, but mainly I am a collector.
Military Trader: Both of you have had successful online military relic ventures. What motivated you to consider an all-military online auction format?
Bob Chatt: In the back of my mind, I have always felt there needed to be an alternative to eBay. We all complain about eBay and it’s rules, but nobody does anything about it.
Joe came to me with the suggestion of us starting our own militaria auction. Because I knew that he had run a very successful photography auction a few years ago, I didn’t think twice about jumping into this venture with him.
Joe Tonelli: As I mentioned, I had taken a break from being a full-time dealer and collector. When I did come back to the hobby, my plan was to be just a collector. As it turned out, there inevitably comes a time when you purchase a double or a collection just to get the one item you want.
After not having sold anything on eBay for almost 12 years, I found myself back under the yoke of eBay’s fees and rules.
Suddenly, I was back to just trying to figure out how much it would cost to sell a single item. Reading through pages of pricing explanations and having to give eBay more access to my personal information/banking, I realized that I had really no control over my seller’s page.
It was clear that eBay was just going to tell me what to do, take what they wanted, and if I did not like it, well, too bad! Since I still had the software from when I was running Tonelli Auction and Collectibles, I thought it was time to offer the collecting community a choice.
Bob and I have been friends and done business for more than twenty years. Bob is one of the most trustworthy people I know, so I knew that we could start a business venture on a handshake.
It just made sense: I had the software and experience running an online auction, while Bob had the experience of promoting shows and online venues. We both knew what we would like to see in an auction site, so that is what we built.
Military Trader: Briefly describe how HABonline.com works. Is it a consignment service or a “self-serve” platform like eBay or Etsy?
Bob Chatt: The HABonline.com (Historical Auction Block) is very similar to eBay in how you list and sell. The seller does everything while we provide the platform.
However, HABonline.com is a lot more collector-friendly and will not ban items, even if they are considered by some to be politically incorrect (e.g, Third Reich items, US Valor medals, Japanese flags, etc).
We also believe in making it a lot more seller-friendly. We have all paid Ebay’s fees and know how bad they can hurt at the end of the month. We do not charge any listing fees, just a super-low 5% final value fee.
Joe Tonelli: HABonline.com is a 100% self-serve platform, with the collector in mind. In many ways HABonline.com is what eBay used to be, but we give the control back to the user.
The user can set their own terms of sale, their own means of payment (HABonline.com even offers an alternative to PayPal), and their own shipping. There is also feedback for both the buyer and seller.
Another great thing about HABonline.com is if you have a problem, we personally answer the question for you — not a call center or chat feature.
Military Trader: Getting people to switch to another, self-serve auction platform is going to take time. How do you plan to get current sellers to shift from eBay or Etsy to the HABonline.com?
Bob Chatt: In this hobby (as in many others), both buyers and sellers are afraid of change. We are trying to take the “fear” out of it.
We are offering some sellers who have large Ebay stores an opportunity to move their stores over the HABonline.com, and it won’t cost them a penny. We are absorbing the tech fees involved just to show the sellers that we want them and value them.
The overall process has been slow but steady. I will say HAB-online.com is definitely moving in the right direction.
Like all worthwhile ventures, it will take time. I remember back in 1997 when Ebay was lucky to get a total of 100 new items in the militaria categories in a week.
Joe Tonelli: Yes, it does take time, and one of the hardest things in the world is to change people’s minds!
Since the day we started selling on eBay we all have complained about one thing or another, as have countless others. Now HABonline.com offers an alternative and some people say they support it but want to wait and see how things go.
Basically, we have taken everything that we thought we would like to see in an online auction, along with fellow collectors and dealers, and put into HABonline.com. Of course, there are certain things that we just simply cannot do because of the law, but other than that, we are also completely open to hearing anyone’s suggestions.
The site is easy to use, the fees are a fraction of other sites, there are very few restrictions, and we are committed to making this work for everyone.
eBay has been in business for 25 years, HABonline.com has been in business for 4 months.
eBay has 182 million users, HAB has 500 and growing everyday.
Simply put, if people want to compare the two platforms, eBay will always come out on top.
There is — and never will be — any intent to try to match the power of eBay. HABonline.com was only started to give collectors an alternative to eBay.
HABonline.com, however, will be successful as people spread the news of the site, list their own items, and bid on the items featured on the site.
Military Trader: How can a private individual begin selling on the HABonline.com? Is there a membership or application?
Bob Chatt: It is simple to sign up. You go to the page (www.HABonline.com) and just hit the registration button. Once you are done registering you will receive a confirmation email and you are ready to go, easy and painless.
Joe Tonelli: If you would like to browse the site, there is nothing you need to do, just go to HABonline.com and look around.
However, if you would like to bid, you will need to resister as a user (no credit card required).
If you would like to sell, you must place a credit card on file with our payment provider, Stripe.com. If you don’t know Stripe.com, suffice it to say it is the world’s largest online payment processor, second only to PayPal!
The fees are the same for everyone. There are NO recurring membership fees.
Military Trader: Does HABonline.com provide any protections to the buyer? What if someone buys something only to find that the item was misrepresented? Describe how disputes are resolved.
Joe Tonelli: An early lesson I learned the hard way was when I was around 12 years old. I purchased an SS Officer’s visor cap for $400 from an ad in the Shotgun News. I mailed off my money order, and two weeks later it arrived — just in time to take my latest find to the local gun show to show off. Well, it turned out that it was a reproduction and worth only $20.
After calling and writing the seller, I had no luck with getting a refund. I was out my $400.
I went to my dad to ask what I could do. He said, “Learn what you are doing before you spend your money.”
It was a hard lesson at the time but has served me well over the years.
So, we take the fraudulent sale of reproductions as originals very seriously. We make every attempt to ensure that the items are being sold as described. However, it is the final responsibility of the buyer to have sufficient knowledge of the item being purchased.
All items are purchased as caveat emptor (“buyer beware”). We ask sellers to note in their sales, whenever possible, if an item is a known reproduction. We also ask those sellers offering items as original to give a minimum 7-day return policy.
Since we have both been in this business for 40+ years, we have established relationships with most major dealers and authorities in each area of collectibles. We work together with them to ensure that items are described and identified as original or reproduction.
In cases where an item is an obvious reproduction and wrongly described, we will notify the seller and ask for them to correct it. If they do not, the listing will be removed.
If it is determined that a seller continually post items as original that are not, their account will be deleted, and they will be permanently banned from the site.
Military Trader: Are there buyer’s or seller’s fees? When are the fees collected?
Bob Chatt: Fees are simple: There are no buyers’ fees.
For sellers, there are no fees for creating a basic auction or buy-it-now listing. There is just a basic 5% of the final selling price charged to the seller’s account.
There are add on fees if a seller wishes to highlight any items. These are:
Featured page posting $0.15
Bold, Text-Sale Banner-Highlight-Subtitle, all $0.10 each
YouTube Video $1.00;
Good ‘Til Canceled $0.25.
Reserve fees that start at $0.50 and max out at $5.00.
They only other notable fee is collected if you have a “storefront.” Storefront owners pay a one-time, $.25-an-item fee for each item until sold or cancelled. On eBay, this is $.10 per month, continuously.
Our sellers’ fees are collected at the end of the month.
Military Trader: We are all concerned about our cyber security. What provisions has HABonline.com taken to protect against cyber-attacks aimed at gaining buyer and seller payment information?
Bob Chatt: We have gone above and beyond with security safety measures. This is a concern for anyone who does business online.
Our site host and our techs are all very internet safety savvy and they don’t mess around waiting for anything to happen. They stay on top of everything.
No credit card information is storied on HABonline.com. All payment information is stored with Stripe.com.
Stripe has been audited by a PCI-certified auditor and is certified to PCI Service Provider Level 1. This is the most stringent level of certification available in the payments industry. Stripe is the second largest online payment processor in the world, second only to PayPal.
Military Trader: So many online relic auctions have faltered because of reserves or high (near retail) opening bids. What, if any, steps are you taking to encourage sellers to take the gambles necessary for auctions to take off with bids?
Bob Chatt: This is something we have been discussing. It is hard for us to tell the sellers how they should price something.
We suggest sellers don’t start at retail prices. That should encourage more play, but again, it is not our position to tell anyone how to set their prices.
I know when I personally list items, it is either $9.99 or $14.95 starting for the auction, no matter what the item is or what it is worth. If it doesn’t sell at auction, it then goes into the store at a higher price.
One thing we are discussing is possibly opening up more categories (non-militaria) to see if that brings in more sellers who enjoy auctions.
Joe Tonelli: This is the most frequent comment that we get! In short, we can’t make anyone sell low and buy high!
The days of finding the holy grail for $9.99 online are long gone. Also, no one wants to take a chance of listing a $1,000 item for $0.99.
The funny thing is, we had one person say everything was overpriced. So, Bob and I both decided we would start several items at a fraction of retail.
I sold a $25 WWII collar disc for $1.99. It was a great deal for the buyer. The same person who had said there were no deals and all items were overpriced, remarked, “I bet the seller isn’t happy!”
It all really speaks to a larger problem that this hobby has: A lack of new collectors.
Everyone has hundreds of lower end collectibles to sell, but everyone else is looking for the rare, high-end items. In the end, this means there are hundreds of thousands of common items and very few rare ones to satisfy buyers and / or sellers.
Therefore, we are in the process of adding more categories to the site. This will bring in more non-militaria sellers who will likely list the occasional military item they find. This will also help bring in new collectors and expose others to areas they may not have considered before.
Both of us are working continuously to spread the word about the site. We offer free postcards for sellers to include with their shipments to share at shows. We also offer free banner ads on the site for all nonprofit clubs and societies.
We want to hear from everyone, good or bad. We are committed to making this a site where the user has a say in what happens. If anyone has something to share, they can reach out, and we will personally respond to them.
Military Trader: What types of items saw particularly hot bidding in your first couple of months of operation? Were there any bidding patterns that surprised you?
Bob Chatt: During the first couple of months, I saw the best sales in US collar insignia, photography, and ephemera.
Joe Tonelli: As we expected, Third Reich items. This is because HABonline.com does not have any restrictions on these items.
Military Trader: We all love stories of great buys. Do any particular sales come to mind of astounding prices, rarity, or just good old-fashion bargains?
Bob Chatt: The piece that jumps to mind is an experimental WWII US Army camouflage shirt that sold for about $700. In my mind, this was the coolest thing that sold and both the buyer and seller did okay.
I wanted to bid but both Danielle and Joe told me to let someone else buy it. So since that day, I have tried not to bid on anything and to just leave that to the bidders who are registered.
I have also seen a lot of insignia from WWI and before selling for very reasonable prices.
Joe Tonelli: Yes, there are bargains! Just like anywhere else, you must look. There are hundreds of great pieces of insignia and patches listed for fraction of retail prices at shows and other online sites. But one sale that sticks in my memory was for a great set of WWI USMC dog handler manuals that turned up and sold for a very reasonable price.
We are honored to interview and report on prominent players in our hobby. To learn more about HABonline.com, or more importantly, to view the current offerings, log onto HABonline.com
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