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anitques: Brave new world; Christopher Proudlove on how internet bidding is set to trans salerooms.

I WAS reminded how small the world is now thanks to the internet when I was e-mailed by a reader in Australia, who took me to task after spotting my comments about Isaac Lewis and the Royal Charter. It made me realise what a powerful impact the internet-led revolution in global communications and dissemination of knowledge has had on the world of antiques and auctions.

One has only to look at the success of eBay to know this is so. But today the industry stands on the verge of an internet revolution of its own, bidding by computer in auctions as they happen, wherever they - or you - might be in the world.

Already, a number of auctioneers and their clients are benefiting from this so-called global real-time virtual auctioneering, but the arrival on the scene of Christie's - one of the two biggest auctioneers in the world - means things are about to get serious.

As reported here last week, the defining feature of Christie'sLIVE is the facility for bidders to both hear and see a sale in progress while sitting at their computers. It is a facility other providers have been trialling with mixed success - if it works, it puts Christie's ahead of the pack.

For years, auctioneers have sought the next Big Thing to enhance their business and drive revenue. This is it says Christopher Ewbank, chairman of the Society of Fine Art Auctioneers and Valuers and himself an early pioneer of the service.

His first sale taking bids online was exactly a year ago this month with the software and support provided by, a New York-based company which works in association with eBay Live Auctions.

Mr Ewbank said: "Bidding via the internet, using your computer at home or in the office, has to make buying at auction a much more attractive proposition, particularly for bidders in other countries and time zones, or those who simply don't have the time to attend our sales and sit through the auction to bid on a single lot."

He was right. I logged onto that auction, broadcast over the internet from the saleroom in Surrey, and it was clearly a success. One lot - a Lalique vase - was sold to a collector in Texas.

But sitting watching scrolling numbers on a computer screen gets a bit dull after a while.

Live Auctioneers experimented with providing sound of the auctioneer's voice but found the results disappointing. The feature is not presently included.

Chief executive Julian Ellison told me even with broadband the delay between the sound leaving the auctioneer's mouth and it reaching a computer elsewhere in the world was sufficient to create problems for a bidder who might find himself pushing the button to bid, only to find the lot had already been sold.

Another pioneer of real-time bidding is, sister company of the antiques dealers' bible the Antiques Trade Gazette. In contrast it does provide a sound feed from auctions using software provided by, another US company. Among a growing band of UK companies who have signed up with are Chester's Byrne's auctioneers, which most recently offered the service at its June fine art sale held at the city's racecourse.

One auctioneer I spoke to said he felt being able to hear a sale in progress gave his clients a feel of the atmosphere of the saleroom and held their attention. He advised me to turn off the sound whenever I wanted to bid on a particular lot so as not to be affected by any possible delay.

It is for this reason Christie'sLIVE plan to include both sound and vision in its venture is particularly interesting. The demonstration videos running on Christie's website are convincing, but the proof of the pudding will be when the service goes live.

The facility was tested publicly for the first time on July 12 with a selected group of 20 clients invited to bid for low value lots in a New York sale. A total of 11 lots were sold online, the first being a late 19th century upholstered seat which sold for $1,400.

On Tuesday this week, Christie's South Kensington outpost gave the system its first airing in the UK and 18 clients registered from Europe (including the UK), the US and Hong Kong. Eight lots were bought by internet bidders, the history-making first one being a pair of Italian terracotta seat supports which sold for pounds 456, a somewhat inauspicious launch of a potential blockbuster facility.

Prior to that, the system had been tested internally and auctioneers trained to use it for several months.

Christie's joined the internet race somewhat late in the day, but its caution might have paid dividends. Competitor Sotheby's was much more willing to embrace new technology and got its fingers burned.

Joint ventures first with Amazon and then with eBay both foundered and an attempt to put low-end value lots in online sales also ended in tears.

However, it continues to hold around four online real-time sales a year in conjunction with eBay Live Auctions.

Christie's, on the other hand, prevented its brand name from being watered down by association with third party service providers. The new software has been developed for Christie's by Floridabased Auction Management Solutions and unlike competitors, users will sign up and register to bid in Christie'sLIVE sales on Christie's own website.

Going it alone also means neither Christie's nor its online buyers need pay any extra fees. The first real test of whether Christie'sLIVE actually works will be in October this year when the company stages an auction of Star Trek memorabilia in New York, with potential buyers all wanting to boldly go where previously they could only sit at home and dream.

There was a garden party atmosphere at the Gyrn Castle house sale, featured here last week, the perfect weather and setting overlooking the Dee estuary near Prestatyn encouraging buyers to spend freely. The sale raised at total of pounds 1.7m, the surprise of the two days being the price paid forthe head of a rhinoceros preserved and mounted as a wall trophy. Estimated at pounds 500-1,000, it sold for pounds 20,400


Start the bidding... eBay (top) and Christie's (above) internet salerooms allow you to buy antiques from the comfort of your home
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Jul 22, 2006
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