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The prototype system, based on Anoto technology, which enables fast and reliable transmission of handwritten text and illustrations into digital format, has been developed to enhance a small but significant part of the auction process by a PhD student. Gbolahan Williams is studying under the direction of Professor Christian Heath at the Work, Interaction and Technology faculty at King's College London.

The easy-to-use 'tablet' provides the auctioneer with exactly the same information that is found on the sale sheets – the lot number, its description, reserve and details of commissions – but rather than using a keyboard to enter data from a handwritten sheet, it enables selling price, buyer number and any other information to be entered with an electronic pen and instantly communicated to the back office.

In particular, Robert Stones, managing partner of Peter Wilson, recognised the potential of a system that "would not only allow one to submit price and buyer information immediately a sale is made, but allow for the updating of information on the electronic sales sheet – for example the submission of a late commission bid – even whilst the auction is taking place".

Professor Heath is a Peter Wilson client with a keen interest in the fine art auction process. Three years ago, the Cheshire auctioneers agreed to take part in another experiment, test-driving the so-called 'intelligent gavel'. The prototype gavel, developed by teams based at King's and the University of Tsukuba in Japan, enables the auctioneer to take bids from the internet as if the participants were actually in the room.

By Roland Arkell