Through eBay I've been able to add to the collection of programmes that I had from races I attended as a spectator or marshall through the 60s and 70s, and have also been able to sell on some spares to other collectors. I've learned a few lessons the hard way, so here are some tips that I hope will help buyers in their search for gems, and also to help sellers attract more interest in their items.
Condition. Programmes, particularly from club meetings, were not printed on the best of papers and tend to be fairly thin anyway. Given that many will have been folded vertically and stuffed in and out of a pocket several times during the meeting it is not unreasonable to expect that wear and tear is going to be a factor. You can find ones where the original owner has been kind to them at the meeting and kept them stored flat since, but these are rarer and will generally attract higher prices.
Programmes from the USA are often of larger format (A4) and on better quality paper. They are more magazine like, and do tend to suffer less from wear and tear. They do often contain a lot of advertising, and these do have cut out coupons to send off for things. It is always worth checking with the seller to see if this has happened as the reverse of the coupon may be in the middle of a photo!
Since the 1980s Grand Prix programmes have become standardised in the A4 magazine style format, and you can often pick these up in very good condition.
Programmes are made to be written in, so do expect that some will have the lap charts partially filled in and amendments made to entry lists. Again the seller should cover this in their description, but do ask if they haven't.
Dating. Programmes often leave the year off the date shown on the cover, and it can be hard to tell which year one is from. You can usually find something within the programme to tell you, eg; there might be a table giving the championship positions to date for an event, but you'll have to ask the seller if they've not bothered to look (and many don't). Another option is to use a programme like Outlook that has a diary facility to look up the month and year to see what day the date fell on - meetings will normally be on Sundays or Saturdays so you can get a clue there.
Cover photos can be a help, but take care: For a Grand Prix or major Sports Car race the photo will be from the previous year's event, and national or club meetings in the first half of the year will also usually have a photo from the previous year as a general rule.
Extras. Programmes for major races were often printed up in advance of the entry list, so the latter came as a supplement complete with lap chart blanks. Sometimes these come with the same cover photo as the main programme and you can't tell from the photo what you are bidding on. Always check with the seller.
Other extras could include badges and flyers. If you are a serious collector you will get to know about these and can search them out. US programmes, especially NASCAR, often have cloth patches for the event included and it is very nice to be able to get your hands on these.
You will also find programmes that come with the entry ticket, a marshall's armband or something that makes the item more personal. I have a couple I bought from a mechanic who kindly included a couple of period photos he had taken of the car he was looking after in the paddock at the event.
Autographs. This is a minefield, so be very careful. I've got a good selection that I collected myself in the 60s and many are pretty unidentifiable. A lot of signatures don't look much like the name as written anyway, and many are signed whilst the driver is walking along, meaning that they're not the best of signatures, so I'm always cautious when I see a well written one unless I have another example to compare it with. Aside from the risk of forgery there is the question of whether they signatures were collected at the event or not. With the growth of historic events such as those at Silverstone and Goodwood over the last 10 - 15 years there are a lot of items that have been signed by drivers long after the original event. This may or may not be important to to you, but if you see, say, a 1966 programme signed by "Moss, Hill and Brabham" what you may get is the 1966 item, but signed by Stirling Moss, Phil Hill and Jack Brabham at an event much more recently. If there is a photo of the signatures on the item description a sure giveaway tha they are recent additions is if they are in felt tip pen. Always ask about signed items, and buy according to what is important to you.
Research. You might expect a programme to be accurate, but if you are researching a driver, year, track, car, championship or whatever there are pitfalls. The programme will go to print shortly after the closing date for entries, but the driver/car combinations that start a race will often have a lot of changes from the programme. If the original owner was good enough to record these it will help, but the public address systems have never been that reliable and the changes may not be accurate or complete. Sometimes programmes come up where the owner called in at race control and picked up the official information sheets. If you can get these they are worth their weight in gold to the researcher. If researching always use the programme in conjunction with other material to double check.
Selling. Some sellers of these items are knowledgable collectors, but you often come across someone who has found a box of old programmes and listed them with the barest of descriptions. If you ask questions that they can't answer you will have to apply the old principle of Buyer Beware, and it will be your choice as to whether or not to bid. If you do find that you have bought something that isn't what you thought it was try to resolve the issue with the seller, but if you can't just re-list it on eBay and describe it more accurately. A good description will often mean that you get a better price for it than the one you paid in the first place!
Collecting. Part of the fun of collecting through eBay is that it opens the possibility of finding items you would not come across otherwise, and you will get to know the names of your rivals as you bid on items. Watch how they bid and what they bid on. Be prepared to let items go as some people have very deep pockets; there will probably be another one along soon.
There are a lot of themes you can go with; collecting all the GPs in certain years, particular events, particular circuits and so on. It's worth refining your eBay search criteria and activating the facility for eBay to email you when certain things come up.
Rarity. If you're already a collector you'll probably have your own ideas about how rare programs are. Obviously those from overseas turn up in the UK less often, but the international nature of eBay has helped transform that and you can pick up some really interesting items. Don't take any notice of a seller claiming a programme to be rare though; they have a vested interest in trying to make it sound attractive. Genuine collectors selling on programmes will not make these claims, and if you see this sort of thing it's almost certainly a seller who doesn't know what they are talking about. One of the most commonly advertised F1 programmes on eBay is the one for the 1966 Britsh Grand Prix, yet it often is described as "rare" (for some reason there are also a lot of the 1966 US GP programmes around).
I hope that this helps. Happy eBaying.