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“No” was the unanimous answer from Kathleen Doyle of Doyle Galleries, New York, Elizabeth Coxe of Skinner, Boston, Deborah Seidel of Sloan’s, Washington DC, and Michael Wolf of ewolfs.com, Cleveland, Ohio.

The first three speakers had all experimented with the Internet and found that the cost of going online in terms of time and money had generally outweighed the direct benefits so far.

Michael Wolf, who has the unique distinction of converting a traditional auction room of 20 years standing into a wholly online operation, had a very different story to tell. “If I had been in the same position as Doyles, with the international marketplace of New York on my doorstep, I would never have taken the decision I did, but as a regional auction house in Ohio I felt it was the only way to reach a global audience,” he explained.

After a year in operation he is able to point to a string of major sales, some for hundreds of thousands of dollars, which have been successfully concluded without the buyers visiting Wolf’s to view the lots prior to sale.

“I can honestly say there has been overwhelming customer satisfaction,” he said. “We were surprised, but I do not think we lost any of our regular buyers, whatever their age.”

While he in no way regretted his $3 million investment in online selling and said he expected to be operating profitably by the end of next year, he did not disguise how hard the adjustment had been. “It was a tortuous, expensive and very labour-intensive process to change over. Everything you have to do as a traditional auction house is magnified and intensified when you go online,” he said.

However, his success and optimism contrasted with the experience of the other panelists. Deborah Seidel of Sloan’s explained that her auction house’s partnership with Antique Networking had run into trouble because they had chosen an unsuitable model for their online service. Their concept of offering goods to a trade-only clientele was very popular with dealers but left vendors feeling that their goods had not been given the fullest possible exposure to the market.

Skinners have entered into a joint venture with one of the big Internet names, Lycos. They run a joint site – skinners.lycos.com – where bids can be left. Online bids cannot buy outright, however, since the winning on-line bid is then handled as a commission bid by Skinners at their live auction. Elizabeth Coxe admitted that only a handful of bids tended to come in by that route. For certain lower value categories, like couture or postcards, she said that response over the Web was good, but there was always a danger that the effort involved would outweigh the returns.

Kathleen Doyle confirmed the need to choose the sales which are promoted via the Internet. While live links to
Doyles jewellery, Asian and Belle Epoque sales produced mediocre results, an evening sale of James Cagney memorabilia in September attracted 50,000 viewers and 25 per cent of the sales came via the Internet. Nevertheless live auctions remain at the core of their business and Mrs Doyle is also very aware that a commitment to Internet selling requires time and space which is not available to most regional auction rooms.

Overall the panel concluded that they would all be using the web to further their business in some way but that there was no single best way of taking advantage of its global reach.