Despite the blaze of publicity which accompanied its high profile launch in January, sothebys.com has got off to a slow start. In 1999 alone, Sotheby’s invested over $40 million in their new online auction site, and in the first three weeks of business they say they have turned over an average of approximately $1 million a week.
Seventy percent of property derives from Sotheby’s associate dealers, who signed up to Sotheby’s initial invitation to put them on the web, and 30% from the auction house. Buyers pay 10% premium. While dealers pay no seller’s premium, clients consigning through Sotheby’s pay a 12% premium.
The site is currently, therefore, earning the company approximately $136,000 a week, a pretty low return on the investment.
Craig Moffett, president of Sothebys.com explained that the site had so far sold a few thousand lots, but he could not be more specific at this stage. The majority of those lots went for under $5,000. Between $5,000 and $10,000, “dozens of lots” had sold, and between $10,000 and $50,000, approximately two dozen lots.
So far the only lot to sell for over $60,000 has been an early illustrated edition of the first book on the subject of fishing, from around 1518, which sold for $88,000 having been offered by leading New York dealer H.P. Kraus.
There were no figures available for the number of lots offered but Mr Moffat estimated that the proportion of lots sold was over 25%, depending on the category of sale. The most successful sale so far has been a special auction of Americana, an estate property, which was 80% sold with four lots making over $40,000. Figures for sothebys.amazon.com which launched in November are more accurate, showing that over 50% of lots have sold, at an average of $500-$600.
This supposed success rate of 25% for sothebys.com is at odds with the experience of over twenty-five leading dealers contacted by The Art Newspaper. Of these only two have reported sales of any significance.
Mr Moffett explained that with the rolling auction system the majority of bids were lodged in the last few days; aso that a number of dealers were encouraged to consign high value, prestigious items for the launch and the bulk of sales have not been at the top end of the market.
Dealers confirmed that the service was beset with teething problems. The system was so slow it was extremely difficult either to browse the site or to register bids. The search engine is inadequate and the images are poor. Dealers also experienced huge difficulty in loading new lots onto the site.
David Kerr of Simon Dickinson Fine Art was one of the few dealers contacted who had sold an important work, a $20,000 painting by Jean Baptiste Regnault. The work has gone to a completely unknown client who contacted the gallery by e-mail. Despite the successful sale he was not impressed by the site, complaining that the images were too small, that it was very difficult to browse or find what you were looking for and at times he had found it impossible even to connect to it.
Clemens Vanderven of Vanderven & Vanderven lodged a very rare $100,000 Japanese Arita birdcage vase on the site. It did not register a single bid. However, they were contacted by a US museum about buying the vase and Mr Vandervens suspect they found out about the object through the auction site. Mr Vandervens confirmed that the site had had huge technical problems when it launched, that it was not suitable to selling high value art and that it would be at least three to five years before the site was reply running effectively.
This view was shared by John Mann of Speelman whose five lots failed to elicit a single bid over two weeks. Attempts to load subsequent items had failed due to technological problems. Mr Mann felt that it would be several years before the site was running effectively.
Since launching, Sotheby’s have worked hard to improve the technology of the site. A memo sent to associates on 5 February opens with a quote from Dr Johnson’s preface to his dictionary, “In this work, when it shall be found that much is omitted, let it not be forgotten that much is likewise performed”.
The memo goes on to state that, “The technology issues impacting the responsiveness of the site have been fully addressed, and the site is now much much faster. The search process on sothebys.com has been greatly improved as well.” Dealers using the site recently have confirmed that it has speeded up considerably.
Sotheby’s are remaining upbeat; according to Craig Moffat, “The response so far has exceeded all our expectations.” The business will, however, have to grow at a very dramatic rate if Sotheby’s are able to maintain such a huge investment for so little return. So far all the indications are that it will be a long time before high value art and antiques are sold in any volume through the internet.
Figures for the projected growth of the business are due to be published at the beginning of March. Sotheby’s has no intention of ceasing to conduct live auctions, although various categories such as stamps, prints and collectables already take place almost entirely on the net.
Roaming round sothebys.com
The Art Newspaper roamed around sothebys.com on Saturday, 19 February. This is what we saw. The thirty-eight lots in the pre-1800 paintings and drawings category included the kind of murky, eighteenth/nineteenth-century peasant religious paintings that you find in continental flea markets, weak anonymous drawings, a copy of Raphael’s Madonna della Sedia, provincial vedute, a “Joseph and Potiphar’s wife” “in the manner of Pietro Dandini” (est. $3/5000) which looked quite charming—but one longed to take it off the screen and examine it—and a “A disapproved marriage” which was quite clearly a respectable mid-nineteenth Italian narrative work, unaccountably attributed to Guglielmo Gregorio whose dates are 1714-73—which raised the question: who answers for the attributions? the vendor or Sotheby’s? There were days still to run until the end of the sale, so that may explain why there were hardly any bids registered, but then the quality was truly dismal and the estimates, in the low thousands, high. Maybe Twentieth-century Prints will be better, we thought. A Picasso etching of 1966 with six hours to run had reached $3,100 (est. $2,400-3,600), but there was not a single bid on five of the ten lots whose sale was ending that day. Things were even worse in Contemporary Prints, where there were 193 lots. Ten of these (Edelman, Hydman-Vallien, Matta, Stella, Kacere) were cantering into the finish, with one to two and a half hours to go, but only one had attracted a single bid.
Some top lots
o Only known copy of an illustrated Wynkyn de Worde book on fishing, 1518, $88,000, vendor: H.P.Kraus, Inc.
o American tall case clock, 1760, $57,750, vendor: Sotheby’s.
o American polychrome, poplar document box, $46,200, vendor: Sotheby’s.
o Ansel Adams photograph, “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico”, £31,900, vendor: Time Past.
o William Trost Richards, “Seascape”, 1886, $31,900, vendor: Scott Nussbaum Antiques. o Peter Baumgrass, “Still-life”, 1898, $22,000, vendor: Fletcher-Copenhaver Fine Art.
o Katherine Reed, “Portrait of Lady Juliana”, 1758, $18,700, vendor: Historical Portraits Ltd.
o Pair of nineteenth-century Federal games tables, $16,500, vendor: Thomas Swenke.
o Antonio Jacobsen, “Pilate boat, New York”, 1898, $15,950, vendor: Banks Fine Art.
o Sir William Russell Flint, “The carp pool, Châteauneuf”, mid-twentieth century, $15,950