UPDATE [Nov. 12, 2014 at 7:35 p.m. EST]: More oddness: The Atari games on Ebay have dropped from 96 to 94 lots, including the $850 E.T. game with 30 bids. More updates to the listing that Ebay is now checking?
UPDATE [Nov. 10, 2014 at 9:00 p.m. EST]: I took this post down on November 8th because the “mystery of the missing games” had been resolved with a practical simplicity that was embarrassing to me. At my friend Bill Caraher’s encouragement today, I’ve decided to put the post back. It’s part of the strange story of the Atari games at Alamogordo and serves perhaps as a reminder that media can overreact to things of (at times) inflated/conflated importance.
UPDATE [Nov. 8, 2014 at 11:20 a.m. EST]: I learned from the seller that the listings were temporarily down because he needed to add photos of the certificates of authenticity. Ebay’s policy is to review any such changes and must approve them prior to restoring the items for bidding.
UPDATE [Nov. 8, 2014 at 9:00 a.m. EST]: All 96 games are now back on Ebay with their current level of bidding (including the boxed E.T. game currently going for $730 with 5 days to go in the auction).
On November 4, 2014, the city of Alamogordo, New Mexico listed 96 Atari games on Ebay, games that had been recovered from the landfill excavation on April 26th that had been dumped there in 1983. Although I have/had no intention of bidding/purchasing any of the lots, I do have an interest in what happens to the games, which you can read about here.
When I checked the auctions this morning at around 11:00 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, I noticed that the lots had dropped from 96 games to 71 games. This was odd, because none of the lots listed had a “Buy Now” option, and all lots were originally listed as 10-day auctions with minimum bids. Over the course of a couple of hours, I watched as the lots continued to be delisted. As of this writing at 4:30 p.m. Eastern, there are 19 lots remaining. What’s strange about that is that these 19 games have remained up for a few hours now with no further action taken. Eighteen of the 19 games have at least one bid, and a boxed Asteroids game (Alamogordo city inventory number 8151) is leading the pack at US$510 with 13 bids. What else is available for sale right now?
Asteroids (4 games), Defender (1 game), Missile Command (9 games), Phoenix (1 game), Star Raiders (with controller, 1 game), Swordquest (1 game), Warlords (2 games).
What’s missing? Most notably all of the boxed and loose copies of E.T.
The Ebay seller is “tbhs575”, shorthand for the Tularosa Basin Historical Society, which will receive 20% of the proceeds of sales of the games. The City of Alamogordo will receive 80% of the proceeds [seller comment].
So what’s going on? Here are some theories, and they are just that: theories. The Punk Archaeology team hopes to hear back from a few sources to learn what happened, but for now it’s a mystery, a plot twist worthy of Christopher Nolan. What might have happened to the games?
Theory 1: Somebody reported these games as being “toxic”, and Ebay delisted them as a violation of its Terms of Service. I don’t know if this is the case, seeing as 19 games remain up for bidding, and the seller has not been banned.
Theory 2: There is a private buyer who made an offer the seller couldn’t refuse. This is a possibility, and that buyer bought most (but not all) of the lots, and did so anonymously.
Theory 3: Most of the games were hidden/delisted by the seller so that they could be updated in some way. Some of the games that are still up have comments from prospective bidders asking why the games cannot be shipped outside of the U.S., so perhaps shipping data is being added.
Theory 4: [UPDATED] One of my archaeologist friends who has more common since that I do (for today anyway) posited that Ebay delisted most of the Atari games perhaps because of suspicious bid patterns. My colleague noticed that “there are some bidders who seem to have never bid on anything but these. The bids make no sense. Why is one Asteroids at $500 and another at $50? Collectors aren’t that stupid. No one would have found one Asteroids box, but missed the twelve others listed.”
I’ll blog more here as I learn more about what’s going on. This is not normal auction behavior, and one colleague who tracks the sale of antiquities thinks that this rapid delisting is indeed a telling sign that a private bidder came forward with an offer. Time will tell if that’s the winning theory, but I do think Theory 4 (suspicious bidding activity) might ultimately be the correct one.
You can keep an eye on these auctions, too, by clicking here.
UPDATE! [5:05 p.m. EST, Nov. 7, 2014]: Mark Murray contacted me on Twitter to say that he’d written to the seller who replied, “Nothing has been pulled. I’m contacting ebay right now.” I’ll keep you posted as I learn more.
Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming