Auction Houses Respond To Internet Challenges

Much recent attention has been paid to the success of online auctions such as Ebay and Onsale. Real world auction houses are undergoing momentous changes as they adapt to these new developments. With Ebay now worth six times Sotheby's, auction houses are scrambling to get online. Many that were previously inaccessible because of distance, localized advertising or expensive catalogs, are now online and free. Not all the great buying or selling opportunities are at internet auctions!.

As recently as a couple of years ago, many auctioneers scoffed at the idea that the net could present a serious challenge to the industry. "Nothing compares to examining an artifact in person" and "nobody would trust a transaction of several thousand dollars over the net" were common objections voiced, yet the reverse has proven to be the case. With online sellers offering inspection periods and building trustworthy reputations, hundreds of collectible and fine art transactions are now being conducted over the net daily. Lots frequently reach thousands and sometimes more. Many of these lots are in the area of collectibles that the larger traditional auction houses have expanded into in recent years.

Auctioneers may ignore developments and suffer accordingly or take proper advantage of the net and use it to a more profitable end. Some auctioneers have been quick to respond to the new technology, others less so. Lunds in British Columbia is an example of one company that has a sophisticated and user friendly auction interface. The reasons this writer likes their site are several. Firstly it is clear that they take their web site seriously. Nothing is more alienating for the bidder than a web site that is poorly put together and updated irregularly. In the case of Lunds a very few clicks brings you to the preview for the next auction or the full catalog posted a few days in advance. Real world auction sites are of limited usefulness unless they commit to publishing full catalogs.

 Lunds do not overdo graphics, as buyers are far more interested in speed that looks, a fact often ignored in web site development. They are helpful on the phone and usually can scans lots not pictured. Leaving a bid is done using a credit card over the phone, which also allows the bidder to talk directly to someone who has the lot in hand. Auctioneers that do not have visa processing usually require a deposit. Many other auction houses have followed this relatively simple model. Harris Auction Galleries in Maryland and Young Fine Arts in Maine are other examples. Many more can be found in the auction listing of the Maine Antique Digest.

 Lunds report and increasing number of successful high bidders coming from the net. An auctioneer from a large London house expressed surprise at how many inquiries they are now receiving over the net. He also expressed surprise that all the net inquiries did not come from "idiots". This may reflect a fear among traditional auctioneers that the internet will bring "tire kickers", but the reverse seems to be the case.

 It is surprising how many auctioneers have invested, sometimes a large amount, in their net presence but failed to appreciate its fundamental capabilities and take advantage of them. It is not uncommon to find auctions numbered or named but not dated, so the reader is unsure if the auction is already over! Other real world auction houses are trying to present online auctions and real world auctions at the same time. Still others get too caught up in the technical aspects (or their consultants do) and end up with highly complicated and useless sites. Few appear to know how to market their sites. Many simple put a page up outlining their services.

 Christies and Sotheby's, the two largest auction houses in the world, face the same problem. These houses invest large amounts in the production of glossy color catalogs for all auctions. It is unfeasible to charge for online catalogs. As more people use online catalogs the production and sale of the print media becomes more costly as fewer are sold. At this point they have developed different responses to the net. Christies allows you to subscribe to a lotfinder service for a small fee. Thus all catalogs are searched for items of interest. Sotheby's allows free searches of a limited selection of catalogs. They also allow archival searches, which can be helpful for valuation. A limited version of the same archival search is also provided by Artfact. Searches of completed Items on ebay perform the same function.

 The company responsible for posting the most auction house data on the net is Auctions-On-Line. They post full catalogs for auction houses all over the world. Many large companies such as Bonhams are represented. Recently they seem to have changed their mission and focus more on presenting lots for online auction but still have the largest collection of full catalogs from minor and major auction houses in all categories of collecting.

 Most of the best lots in collecting fields still come to the market via traditional auctions. As yet dealers and collectors also still feel more comfortable consigning the best items to live auction. Live auctions have the advantage of advance marketing in specialized journals and magazines. Bargains can also still be had in real world actions, as sites such as Ebay have such high "readership" misidentified lots are rarely overlooked. The same is not true of misspelled lots!