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Bureau of Trade

Flash sale site culls rare finds from the Internet's largest one-off marketplaces

by Josh Rubin in Design on 06 February 2012

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It all started with a search for a pair of whalebones—two of them, between five and seven feet in length—to be mounted on a wall. Michael Moskowitz wanted to display the rare pieces to spark discussion of conservationist efforts, but found them exceedingly hard to come by. With all the flash sale sites around, he was surprised that there remained no options for curating Craigslist and Ebay, the Internet's largest gold mines for rare and one-off finds. So he started Bureau of Trade, a newly launched website for unique items at remarkably low prices.

Currently in beta, the space features around 30 finds per day with plans to up the output to 150 in the near future. Among the treasures are a trillion dollars in Zimbabwean currency (valued at $500), a block of petrified lightning and a 19th-century French fire helmet. Tailoring to the anti-IKEA masses, Moskowitz selects the goods based on what he sees would peak the interest of a discerning collector.

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Moskowitz's background ranges from foreign policy analyst to IDEO designer, but he admits Bureau of Trade is informed by his personal experience searching the globe for rare collectibles. "If you've spent months scouring Bermondsey Market, and continue to hound Brooklyn and Alameda Fleas, travel to Kathmandu for sandalwood neckties, to Tel Aviv for illicit Afghan war rugs (don't ask why they end up there), to Buenos Aires for pure silver goucho spurs from the 19th century, and correspond with teenagers in Tripoli to secure Qaddafi propoganda posters, I think you have at least some small trace of credibility to make a site like this work," he says.

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The site mashes up the tastes of a number of influences: effortless shopping à la Mr. Porter, humorous and informative copy they model on the writing of The Daily Show, visual appeal of Haw-Lin and the sensibilities of Brooklyn Flea shoppers. Succinct and entertaining descriptions limit product blurbs to tongue-in-cheek "suitable for" and "not suitable for" designations. Users can browse by category or world geography, which ranges from "American West" to "The Orient."

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While Bureau of Trade is a free service, users are still asked to register. "We want to keep things exclusive," says Moskowitz. "There shouldn't be three, five or 50 Walrus skin attachés carried around Manhattan at any given time—at least prior to the Mayan apocalypse." In the future, Bureau will offer a subscription service to help customers find specific items as well as alert them when preferred merchandise becomes available.

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