Clear visual images of lots, easy and quick access and the reliability of the Sotheby's brand will prove crucial in opening up this vast new market of antiques buyers, says Sotheby's president and chief executive Dede Brooks.
“We're trying to embrace people who haven't bought before,” she told the Antiques Trade Gazette, as she explained the company's strategy. “Millions of people have the money to buy online, but they have to be comfortable with it. Recently, I have conducted several meetings with a large number of Wall Street people. When I asked how how many of them had been to an auction before, about ten per cent of the hands went up. When I asked how many of them would be interested in bidding if we put auctions online, about 90 per cent put their hands up.”
It is the potential of capturing these as yet untapped millions which has persuaded her that the initial investment of $40m in the joint Sotheby's/Amazon project has been worthwhile, not least because if its succeeds in doing so it would remove the barriers from what many see as a shrinking market.
For those studying the development of Internet auction sites, it is the difficulty in persuading serious buyers to bid for high value art on the strength of a screen image and description alone that raises the biggest doubts. But, looking at the wider potential market, Dede Brooks does not see this as a significant issue. “There are going to be millions of people who are hoping to buy online who will not have seen the items before. There will always be some people who will not buy without inspecting the objects first – and they can do so – but the majority will be happy to do so if the visual imaging online is good enough.”
This is why Sotheby's have spent so much time and effort in reproducing large clear images that stand up to close-up inspection. “Our images are two and a half times the size of those on the eBay Great Collections site. The only issue in using them is capacity and response time.”
Ms Brooks, who said that the service should begin to develop well over the next three months, said their strategy was already paying off on the sothebys.amazon.com site, which was launched two months ago. “We are already selling at a rate of 46 to 55 per cent of the lots. I will bet we have sold more than twice as much in dollar terms on that site in the past seven weeks as any other art auction site pitched at our level.”
And she is bullish about the prospects of sothebys.com. Even at the London launch last week, senior Sotheby's figures were wary of committing themselves to a timescale for a return on investment or selling rates; not so Dede Brooks, who confidently predicted a 20-30 per cent selling rate by lot across both sites within the first six months and a 50 per cent turnover of lots within 12-18 months – a major achievement for online sales.
“When we have passed the $100m mark in sales we will have a very serious business,” she said.
The mere fact that Sotheby's are starting to quote figures and timescales is a clear illustration of their confidence, as is their pledge to publish sale results in some form.
The next three months will prove crucial in building credibility, a new client base and developing dealer interest.
Sotheby's target a new market online
SOTHEBY'S are counting on being able to woo a whole new generation of young millionaires into buying art and antiques online at sothebys.com, their new Internet auction service. It launched last week with about half the 5000 lots drawn from Sotheby's vendors and half from 400 associate dealers.