Our thanks, then, to Sotheby’s for livening things up with its surprise announcement last week that it was scrapping buyer’s premium for online-only (timed) sales.
Surprising, because Sotheby’s is a cautious online player after making huge financial losses developing its internet presence, back in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Unveiled at the height of what the media calls the silly season, it would be easy to couch this move as a big play but in a low risk area. Forgoing buyer fees on the thinnest part of Sotheby’s portfolio of sales – 30 or so out of hundreds held per year – is not likely to hit its bottom line.
It’s tempting to view, too, the ‘no fees’ promise as a competitive response to Christie’s, which has made greater strides in the online-only arena than its New Bond Street rival.
Taken on its own, though, the Sotheby’s move looks clever on a few fronts.
True, online-only is the format on which, in the wake of Auctionata’s collapse earlier this year, few traditional auctioneers are betting the farm.
But its economy for auctioneers and convenience for private bidders are hard to deny.
Aside from the need to tackle vendor reluctance to consign to such sales, the key to their success is bidder acquisition and Sotheby’s is right to experiment in how it attracts them.
Amid pressure for auctioneers to be more transparent about fees, scrapping them altogether solves that problem.
On a net basis, the initiative may well drive revenue if the absence of fees encourages higher hammer prices.
There’s also the prospect of a richer database. With stricter EU rules around personal data compliance looming, ‘no fees’ is an appealing lure for private buyers to part with their data and dip their toes into auction buying.
Whether Sotheby’s views deleting fees as a temporary marketing loss leader remains to be seen. Other questions surround how varied its sales will become beyond the usual online fare and what the reaction from Christie’s and other online-only players will be.
Sotheby’s, meanwhile, has this month hired former Christie’s digital and e-commerce chief John Auerbach, and promised to double the number of online-only sales it holds.
It all adds up to Sotheby’s renewed and buyer-friendly intent in the online world that, if it succeeds in widening the appeal of auction buying, the industry should welcome.