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At live auctions, bidders can count on the availability of goods for purchase simply by their presence in the room. But according to a legal expert, because goods offered for sale on the Internet are not necessarily physically present at the auctioneers, online bidders can only assume they are the new owners of items, and thus sell them on for a quick profit, when they have been informed that the goods in question have actually been shipped to them. Being told you are the successful bidder is not enough.

The dispute arose after a Cotswold-based dealer was notified by email from Sotheby’s that he was the successful bidder at $700 (£469) for a painting offered at auction on the sothebys.amazon.com site. The auction house then processed his payment and promised to have the painting delivered soon.

When he had still not received the painting after several weeks, the dealer contacted Sotheby’s to find out when it would be delivered. It was only then that the auction house discovered that the painting should never have appeared in the sale, having been withdrawn from an earlier auction by the vendor.

But by this time, the dealer told them, he had sold the painting on at a considerable profit, and his client was awaiting delivery.

He told the Antiques Trade Gazette that when he asked Sotheby’s what they intended to do about the matter, they offered him $20 compensation, raising this to the offer of a goodwill payment of $200 that would remain open for a week, but still not admitting any liability. They also tried to buy the painting on his behalf from the vendor who refused to part with it.

The dealer says he is not happy to let the matter rest, especially as his lost profit ran into four figures, but the terms and conditions on both the Amazon and Sotheby’s sites would seem to protect the auctioneers from such claims.

On the Amazon site, which hosted the sale of the painting, the conditions state that: “Amazon.com will not be liable for any damages of any kind arising from the use of this site, including, but not limited to direct, indirect, incidental, punitive, and consequential damages.” Sotheby’s appear to cover themselves equally effectively, with their terms and conditions including the statement: “The site provider may refuse to process a transaction for any reason or refuse service to anyone at any time in its sole discretion.” Anyone bidding on either site must register as having accepted the terms and conditions first.

“Sotheby’s told me that although they had made the error, the legal responsibility for the site lay with Amazon,” the dealer said. “To add insult to injury, not only had the error cost me my profit, and a valued client, but the initial compensation of $20 they offered would still have left me out of pocket on my original payment because of a fall in the exchange rate.”

Nathan Willmott, of Sotheby’s legal department acknowledged that as the Internet was a developing medium, difficulties were only to be expected, but that it was important to be sensitive to them when they did. But he added that no successful bidder should consider themselves the new owner of an item “until they have had confirmation that it has been shipped to them”.