Q. I often scour garage sales, flea markets, local auctions and the like for bargain prices on rare and valuable collectibles. Often I acquire an item for $20 which is listed in price guides as worth thousands of dollars. Am I taking unfair advantage of the ignorant seller?
A. Your question is a good one because Jewish law insists that fair business practices are incumbent on buyers as well as sellers. The Torah tells us: "When you make a sale to your fellow, or buy from your fellow, don't oppress each man his brother". (Leviticus 19:14.) The context makes clear that the prohibition is on charging an unfair price; calling this practice "oppression" (Hebrew onaah) instead of deprivation shows that the Torah's emphasis is less on the monetary loss, and more on the aspect of the degradation of human relations as one person takes advantage of another. We see that this verse mentions both selling and buying, thus it applies equally to sellers who gouge prices and to buyers who mislead unwitting sellers into offering a bargain price.
However, the Talmud makes clear that the normative price which would define over- or under-charging is only an accepted and widespread market price. A good whose price is determined by private bargains between buyer and seller has no single defined price, and thus the onaah prohibition does not apply to collectibles. The price guides for most of these goods is only that: a general guide presenting the compiler's best guess as to what experienced collectors are paying for such a good. One such guide even warns that the actual price of an item is determined by the mood of the buyer and the seller at the time of the trade!
An additional lenient consideration is that to some extent a "collectible value" is priced into the flea market price. The price is a little higher than the "junk price" to factor in the chance that the item has exceptional value. Furthermore, in your case even if the seller knew with certainty that the catalog price was many times higher it is not clear that they would hold out for a higher price. Liquidity in collectibles is not so great, and obtaining even something near the catalog price could require a substantial amount of effort and time, with a risk that in the end no high-end buyer could be found. In many instances the seller would be happy to sell you the merchandise for a low price anyway.
However, there is an additional, more subtle distinction. Rabbi Yaakov Bloi of Jerusalem discusses your exact situation and explains that the problem is not the price, but rather the essence of the transaction. A collector's item, explains Rabbi Bloi, is really a completely different item from an aging piece of equipment. Imagine that you went to a garage sale and someone offered to sell you an old camera for twenty dollars. Examining the item, you realize it is not a camera at all -- it is a slide viewer. Irrespective of price, he never intended to sell a slide viewer. Thus before buying you would to tell the seller: "You should know that this item is not a camera at all!"
Likewise, a collector's item listed in a catalogue is not "just a camera". Therefore, the buyer should inform the seller: "You should know that this item is a collectible." You are not obligated to inform the seller of the catalog price, because the laws of undercharging don't apply. As we explained above, the seller is not able to just turn around and find a ready buyer at, or even near, the catalog price. But the essence of a valid sale is a "meeting of the minds", and this can not take place if the seller doesn't even know what it is he is selling. Odds and ends sold at garage sales and local auctions don't have a uniform market price, and so the Torah verse forbidding unfair pricing does not apply to them. However, an item which is of sufficient interest to be included in a published price guide is in an entirely new category; thus, the seller should be informed that his trash is a collector's treasure.
SOURCES: Rabbi Yaakov Bloi, Pitchei Choshen , volume 4, chapter 10, note 25; Rabbi Aaron Levine, Case Studies in Jewish Business Ethics pg. 153-156.
Send your queries about ethics in the workplace to firstname.lastname@example.org
The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.