Enjoy unlimited access: just £1 for 12 weeks

Subscribe now

The dispute, first reported in Antiques Trade Gazette in August 2000 arose after Cotswolds dealer Geoff Hassell was informed that a painting he had successfully bid for on the Sotheby’s/Amazon Website – and subsequently sold on in expectation of delivery – had been included in the sale in error.

Mr Hassell, who is contractually banned from discussing the out-of-court settlement, sought compensation for financial loss, including the healthy profit he expected from the subsequent sale to his client. But he was told that the terms and conditions of using the Sotheby’s/Amazon Website meant that the auction house was under no obligation to grant him satisfaction.

As reported in August’s Gazette, Sotheby’s terms and conditions seem to support this: “The site provider may refuse to process a transaction for any reason or refuse service to anyone at any time in its sole discretion.”

But in Mr Hassell’s case, it seemed that Sotheby’s had processed the transaction. So at the heart of the dispute was the debate over when a buyer at auction on the Internet can safely consider themselves to be the rightful owner of the item sold. By the time Mr Hassell became aware that there was a problem, he had already been told that he was the successful bidder and had had his payment processed with the expectation of early delivery. The Gazette attempted to gain clarification on the point and appeared to do so when Sotheby’s lawyer Nathan Willmott told us that a bidder should not consider himself the new owner of an item “until he has had confirmation that it has been shipped to him.” Shortly afterwards, however, Mr Hassell received exactly such notification, even though he had already been informed that the sale had been a mistake.

Had the case gone to court it is likely that a judge would have ruled exactly when title passes to the buyer at auction on the Internet, thereby limiting the open-ended terms and conditions of the auctioneer and strengthening the rights of the buyer.

The issue is clearly of greater importance to Internet transactions as, unlike with live auctions, bidders cannot be reassured as to the availability of the goods simply by their presence in the room. Until the position is clarified, it effectively hampers the trade from operating “back-to-back” sales, where they have a buyer lined up for an item they are bidding for.
Sotheby’s have since assimilated the sothebys.amazon.com Website into sothebys.com, but the terms and conditions remain no less stringent.