Auctions Go Online

by Alex R. Travers

10.23 auctioneerAmyPapola

Warhols, Lichtensteins, Patek Philippes, haute couture, antique furniture, collectible teddy bears—are people going to buy these online without physically inspecting them first?

Are people going to buy unique items online? wondered collector Alexander Zacke as he and his wife put together Auctionata’s first online live-stream auction in Berlin in 2012. And then: Do they feel confident about it? Can they trust it?

“Sixteen hundred dollars is the opening bid right now, eighteen hundred dollars—Cocteau always generates a lot of excitement,” announces the auctioneer. Jean Cocteau’s “The Kiss VI” (1951) makes an appearance onscreen. Then the camera cuts back to the auctioneer. “Going once, going twice—SOLD to Adam in the United Kingdom for thirty-two hundred dollars. Congratulations.”

Adam in the United Kingdom won this Cocteau at a recent live-stream Auctionata auction in New York in January, titled “Modern Masters.” According to Auctionata’s YouTube channel, there were 287 registered bidders from 26 countries for that sale. With that kind of global audience and a new, entertaining way of conducting auctions, it seems that Auctionata has quickly become the default middle-market auction house (although they once sold an Egon Schiele for $2.418 million), proving that consumers are confident in the online-only auction model. 

“We’ve successfully introduced online-only auctions and specialty retail boutiques like The Watch Shop and The Handbag Shop because our clients have grown increasingly comfortable purchasing art and other luxury goods online,” Christie’s international managing director of e-commerce John Auerbach said over email. Auctionata’s international managing director Ben Hartley agreed: “People trust the online platform. They like to hear our experts talk about art.”

It was really the technology that needed to be perfected. For an auction at Auctionata to be conduced solely online, there could be no computer latency. That wouldn’t be fair to the buyers and consigners. “Getting that live broadcast right was extremely important,” Hartley pointed out.

What’s been important to all auction houses looking to take advantage of the online market, however, is monitoring consumer behavior. What can they do to make a viewer into a consigner? or a registered bidder into a buyer?

Simply getting people to the sites helps. So does social media. “We had a new client who saw a $195,000 Patek Philippe watch on his Instagram feed posted by @ChristiesInc then come to us through that photo to purchase the watch,” said Auerbach.

Perhaps instances like that can help explain Sotheby’s partnership with eBay, who now broadcasts most of its auctions. “Even if we only reach 1 percent of eBay users,” noted Sotheby’s COO Bruno Vinciguerra, “that’s huge for us.”