In 2000, when online sales of any sort were in their infancy, Sotheby’s offered one of only 25 known original copies of the Declaration of Independence on its website. (At the time, Sotheby’s vice chairman David Redden described it as “the most important printed piece of paper in the world.”) The document rocketed above its high estimate of $6 million to sell for $8.14 million.
In 2003, following a reported $100 million loss, the auction house pulled the plug on its much-touted 10-year partnership with eBay after only nine months. Sotheby’s never held an online-only sale again, although — along with Phillips de Pury & Co., Bonhams, and other houses — it continues to accept bids online. Auction officials report that the number of online bids is growing every year, but online-only auctions remain too risky for most. To accompany our feature on online art sales sites, we look at three houses that seem to be getting it right.
In December 2011 Christie’s held its first online-only sale, a selection of 973 items from the estate of Elizabeth Taylor. Although CEO Steven Murphy says the online component was “born out of necessity” due to the range of items on offer, the sale turned out to be a coup, bringing in nine and a half times the presale estimate of $1 million. Since then the house has embraced online sales, holding an auction for James Bond memorabilia from September 28 to October 8 (marking the 50th anniversary of the first James Bond film) and partnering with the Andy Warhol Foundation to sell off its inventory through a combination of sales, live and online, the latter to begin in February. “If one really wants to be in the business of online selling, one needs to make the investment and have the team to build the technological platform,” Murphy says.
The Dallas-based house’s website receives more unique visitors per month than those of Christie’s and Sotheby’s combined, according to the third-party web analytics company Compete.com. In the first half of 2012, 67 of Heritage’s 80 sales were online-only. Heritage estimates that 50 percent of its business by total dollar value and 80 percent to 85 percent of its business by lot comes from online sales. Heritage’s specialties — rare coins, jewelry, wine, and niche categories like arms and armor, comic books, and military memorabilia — lend themselves to internet buying, though cofounder Jim Halperin maintains, “nearly all categories do well online if the website and apps are properly designed, which is easier said than done.” A new feature on the Heritage website, Make Offer to Owner, allows anonymous consignors to post items that are not affiliated with a specific auction. Collectors can browse the archives and make an online offer directly to the seller.
Founded in 2000 by Mumbai collectors Minal and Dinesh Vazirani, SaffronArt is one of the few surviving online art initiatives born during the dot-com boom. The online-only auction house, which specializes in modern and contemporary Indian art but also sells jewelry, textiles, and antiquities, holds more than a dozen sales annually and offers a competitive 15 percent buyer’s premium. In December 2010, SaffronArt brokered what was until recently the most expensive sale in the history of online-only art auctions: A 1991 landscape mural by Arpita Singh fetched $2.2 million, an artist record. Branching out to other categories has proven challenging. In February SaffronArt held India’s first auction of western art — online or otherwise — with dismal results: Only 32 of the 73 lots sold. Undaunted, the founders plan to hold another Western art sale in 2013. “Whereas Impressionist works did not do as well as we had hoped,” notes Dinesh Vazirani, “the response to modern works was strong, with more than half the works selling.”
— Julia Halperin
A version of this post appears in the December issue of Art + Auction magazine.