Bob Hughes, Wall Street Journal reporter who's covered the auction market and author of the novel "Late and Soon" (published in October 2005 and worth reading), was discussing online auctions with us. We asked him if he would share some of his thoughts.
"Way back in the last millennium – 1999, to be exact – the world of big-money art auctions meeting the online world looked pretty grim. Sotheby’s, the renowned auction house, joined forces with online heavyweight eBay to offer fine art. Four years later, the joint venture was dissolved, at a loss of about $100 million to Sotheby’s. Buyers just weren’t ready to spring for five- and six-figure art online. In fact, more than a dozen high-end art sales Web sites began and faded around the same time.
This seems funny, in a way, since people are willing to spend a lot of money online for cars, computers, even homes. But something about high-priced art caused people to think twice. Auctioneer eBay still sells art online, as do other, smaller sites, but there isn’t a site where a connoisseur might plunk down $10 million for a Monet. Back at the time of the dissolution of the Sotheby’s venture with eBay, Sotheby’s chief executive William Ruprecht said there were not as many people “prepared to buy authenticated fine art online as we had hoped.”
That’s still the case, but perhaps not for much longer. As more people become comfortable ordering online. On the day after Thanksgiving, U.S. shoppers spent $305 million on online purchases, excluding travel, a 22% increase over the comparable day a year ago, according to comScore Networks, a Reston, Va., market-research firm. Nielsen//NetRatings reported that the volume of Internet search queries grew to more than 5.1 billion in October 2005, up 15 percent from five months ago. While that kind of interest may not translate into sales of Picassos and Renoirs immediately, it’s bound to open the market for lesser-priced but still quality works.
Indeed, the auction houses themselves are now embracing the Internet as never before. Sotheby’s and Christie’s – the two main auction houses in the world, with about 95% of the business – now publish their auction results online. Sotheby’s also makes its catalogs available online (these can cost $40 or so apiece for the bound versions), and both of the Web sites for these houses have excellent search tools, too. Another art site, ArtNet, is a valuable resource for art news and for tracking the price histories of certain artists – something that collectors once relied exclusively on their dealers and the auction houses for."
What’s missing still, though, is the kind of publicity that the auction houses can drum up, the scholarship and provenance research that auction house can bring, as well as their reputations. Not to mention the excitement of the auction floor for the big sales. (In my novel, “Late and Soon,” I give readers an insider’s view of just such an auction.) Some auctions permit live bidding online during an auction, so there are strides being made. But as the blogosphere grows, who knows what kind of universe may await interested collectors in the next decade?"