Enjoy unlimited access: just £1 for 12 weeks

Subscribe now

While they recognise there can be a downside - and it has been a difficult transition for many traditional firms - they are embracing online bids and it is allowing them to make a global impact.

In the UK, Amy Brenan from Dorchester-based Duke's said online bidding had become an "integral part" of their auctions, "opening up the market considerably".

"Our auctions have become more accessible for those buyers, particularly private buyers or overseas buyers, who are less familiar with the auction environment and feel more at home purchasing items through this method," she added.

"Items which otherwise we struggled to sell have now found online buyers and with the rising costs of fuel the costs for the bidder of buying online can easily be absorbed, making it a more cost-efficient and discreet way of bidding.

"The overall success has proved to us that internet bidding is a modern way of buying at auction and this has at times, for a traditional house of auctioneers, been difficult to adjust to.

"But what does surprise us is the interest we have in lower-value lots through the internet as at this level the 3% [additonal online buyer's premium] charge is more difficult to justify. It goes to show that clients often value convenience very highly."

Edinburgh auction house Lyon & Turnbull use Artfact for online bidding. Managing director Paul Roberts said: "There is no doubt it has been a dramatic increase over, say, three years, and that it is progressing up the market. People will bid online to considerable sums."

He believes people wanting to be anonymous could be a factor, along with their rising confidence in the specialists.

While pitfalls have included an increase in 'ghost bidding', not a huge problem but one evident at a lower level, it has been a massive boost for regional auction houses.

"It has made us international in a way we historically, for obvious reasons, couldn't be," he added. "To a very large extent it means the mantra you've got to go to London or New York to get very high prices is no longer the case."

Although online bids could affect the auction atmosphere, many people were already used to it because of telephone bids, he said.

Marie Doherty from Aston's Auctioneers, in Dudley, said: "The number of bidders is no longer limited by the distance people are willing to travel and we now have the ability to sell to people living on the other side of the world.

"The number of international bidders is increasing every month.

"Now customers have the ability to bid at more than one auction at the same time, so it no longer matters if similar auctions are scheduled on the same day. Some people are wary of bidding at auctions without seeing the items. We try to encourage more internet bidders by providing detailed descriptions and photos of each lot, and also having staff available for condition reports at all times."

East Sussex auctioneers Gorringes of Lewes also use Artfact. Director Clifford Lansberry said: "It is absolutely a good thing overall for auctioneers, you would struggle to find any who wouldn't want it, but at the same time it totally changed the face of the business.

"I think we're seeing probably more viewings online now; it is where people find things. I think the catalogue is, dare I say it, almost a marketing tool these days rather then the actual tool for the buyer.

"In terms of bidding I still think the majority of serious bidders are on the telephone, but there is a very good following using the internet now and it
is increasing."

He did warn that there were pitfalls, such as people using stolen credit cards and internet buyers not paying after sales.

"Online use continuing to rise like this is reliant on the technology; it is still not quite as solid as having a phone line," he said, adding: "It's an interesting world with online, but the atmosphere at sales is somewhat less interesting when it's all online rather than people in the room."

Nick Bowkett from Stroud Auctions said although online sales had led to a lot of extra work and resources, the business was really seeing the benefits, encouraging vendors to put good-quality items on sale and achieve good prices.

"It is a massive extra cost but you do not mind doing it if you get the business," said Mr Bowkett. "Last month was probably the best but I think we have seen a steady growth.

"I realised as soon as we did it, it was going to be successful, so we haven't really been surprised, but we work to give people the confidence to bid with us."

He added: "We have a really good following now. The same buyers are coming back to us from across the world."

As with so many things, it all boils down to trust and quality customer service, but - if you have that - he predicts online bidding "will become the next eBay".

Neil Shuttleworth, antiques & collectables director of Special Auction Services in Newbury, said for their diverse auction on February 9-10 attendance online was "very good, but also a lot of buyers came and viewed the auction prior to bidding online, which is our perfect scenario".

He added: "On both days the saleroom was busy and prices were strong online, on commission and in the room.

"For the jewellery and antiques we have literally seen the demand for the online facilities increase by 100% in the past year alone. This is also applicable to the other specialist streams such as the toys, trains, sport and entertainment."

Jonathan Pratt, managing director of Bellmans, in Wisborough Green, West Sussex, said: "I was very apprehensive about live bidding. I was thinking it could slow the sale down too much. I wondered if it would cover the costs of the service. And I had heard a number of scary stories over the past year which had prevented me from taking the plunge.

"However, after my fourth sale, I cannot see my business running without it. There are fewer unsolds and larger sale totals. The activity online is far greater than I anticipated. The administrative burden is less than I expected.

"Yes, there are hiccups and we have had some buyers default on sales, but on the whole it is of great benefit and makes sound business sense. I decided to use live bidding for a single-owner sale on a Saturday and the sale was 100% sold with prices far in excess of expectation and with internet bidding securing many of the high-value items; the 200 lots of fashion having internet bids on almost every lot.

"Perhaps the real reason why I decided to commit to the service was after another auction house owner said to me 'Jonathan, you are an idiot if you don't'. You can't say fairer than that."