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From Junk to Art: eAuctions Are Moving Upscale

Added: (Thu Nov 25 1999)

Pressbox (Press Release) - By Richard Chang

Not too long ago, 'collectibles' conjured up images of paintings, antiques, stamps and coins. Now, even a gum wrapper can find a collector on the Internet.

As the revolution continues, auction houses, dealers and art galleries are beating a path to your computer screen, so that collectors can bid on high-end items right at home, without having to scratch their nose before an auctioneer.

"Some of the biggest players in the art world have realized that their market is going to be revolutionized by the Internet," said Michael May, digital commerce analyst at Jupiter Communications Group in New York.

"All of the traditional auction houses are seeing an opportunity that the Internet makes it possible to reach a broader spectrum of consumers," said Rebecca Nidositko, analyst at the Yankee Group in Boston.

Sotheby's, the august 255-year-old auction house, has just teamed up with Internet retailer Amazon.com to launch an auction Web site (http://www.sothebys.amazon.com) that brings higher-end items from 4,500 dealers worldwide to collectors who have never stepped into a live auction.

Christie's plans to upgrade its month-old informational site (http://www.christies.com) by June 2000 to remain competitive. And British-based icollector (http://www.icollector.com), which has a similar concept, has begun to advertise aggressively in the United States.

Even eBay (http://www.ebay.com), the site of choice for low-cost Internet transactions, is moving upscale with its Great Collections fine art Web pages.

Instead of Pokemon, Beanie Babies, baseball cards and Zippo lighters, high-end e-auctions concentrate on items like original paintings, antique furniture, first edition books and rare stamps and coins. Transaction prices are significantly higher than the estimated $40 average on eBay's regular site, which was created in 1995 by Pierre Omidyar in a quest to build up his collection of candy dispensers.

High-end auctioneers also authenticate and guarantee each item put up for sale. Person-to-person deals, however, are based solely on trust, without a middleman as a safety net.

"When you move up in price, you need the trust, respectability and confidence that established businesses will bring," said James Corsellis, chief executive of icollector. "It's critical to have accountability and expertise standing behind every one of our products."

And unlike low-cost auctions where sketchy product data may be adequate, sites like sothebys.amazon.com feature sharp photos, and 500 experts who write detail pages and recommend price guides to help buyers make an informed purchase.

A landscape oil painting by 20th century American artist Jon Corbino, for instance, appears on a sothebys.amazon.com page with his date of birth, death and nationality; painting type, title, materials/techniques, style, measurements and history; exact shipping cost, estimated insurance rate, and export restrictions. Bids were as high as $1,300.

"What we think is so key is, when you buy a $3,000 ceramic, you care that it comes from Sotheby's. It's the brand name," added Victoria Pickett, general manager of sothebys.amazon.com.

By contrast, on eBay, a Beatles Plaks bubble gum wrapper -- which attracted bids of up to $130.95 -- has just a paragraph description by the seller with a photo, and a general note that the winning bidder pays shipping and insurance.

However, Sotheby's charges an online buyer's premium, just as it does in live auctions, whereas eBay does not.

"We think free is the best choice. There's no reason to have large margins on the Internet," said Steve Westley, senior vice president of eBay's Great Collections, which only charges sellers small listing and 'success' fees for a completed sale.

Brand names may still matter, but the Internet has reduced the significance of a dealer's location -- after all, you're shopping at home. Buyers don't care if a store is on Fifth Avenue, in New York, or in Hong Kong or Switzerland, or your backyard.

"The Internet has evened the playing field," said Peter Schiffer, founder and chief of Schiffer Publishing (http://www.schifferbooks.com), the largest U.S. publisher of books on collectibles.

"On a common piece today, prices are the same in San Francisco, New York and London, because everybody looks at the Internet. There are more standard pieces than ever before (up for sale) and prices are going down."

At the high end, however, "there are enormous price differences between countries depending on supply and demand," said Corsellis. "For example, American art in Germany sells for a lot less" than in the United States.

As online stock trading gains momentum, investors may want to spend some of their gains online as well. Auction sites are trying to make sure that this happens. icollector has direct links with Bloomberg (http://www.bloomberg.com) and The Financial Times Group (http://www.ft.com) so that financial news readers can just click their way to an instant shopping outlet.

"People who have either been intimidated or disdainful of the traditional art channel now have the opportunity to get more involved," said May of Jupiter.

"We're trying to create the notion of accessible luxury," noted Westley of eBay. "You can have instant access. If we can bring treasures into our apartments or houses, it's exciting -- every night of the week."

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