Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Internet Effect on Antique Auctions

A turn-on ... or a turn-off

Having attended antique and art auctions for the past 40 years, I can recall fondly, the times when my success at an auction frequently depended on the turnout at the sale.  Less attendees meant less competition.  Experience taught me  that particularly bad weather often meant lower numbers showing up  and was usually well worth the extra effort to fight the driving rain or to slog through the snow.

Nowadays, of course, as more auction houses subscribe to live on-line bidding, my old theory of auction attending has gone out the window ...  I've attended auctions recently where the sale room was half empty, yet the bids were coming in thick and fast over the internet.   It's always been hard enough to have to bid 'against the room' but now, you have to bid against some guy in San Francisco sitting in front of his computer in his pyjamas.

Auctions were traditionaly the wholesale source of art and antiques for the dealer.  It's always been that way.  Retail buyers or collectors were always in the minority at an auction.  Many people outside the trade shied away from auctions.  Going up against a room full of knowledgeable dealers could be intimidating.  If you outbid the dealers, did you pay too much or, did the dealers know something about the item that you didn't?

Today, all you have to do is to register with one of the big live on-line auction companies and you're given instant access to many, many auctions in the country or even around the world.  A search engine will help you find the item or items you're looking for.  You can peruse their catalogs, review auction estimates, and even see what pre-auction bids have been submitted thus far.  Then you too, can sit back in your pyjamas, and bid on practicaly anything on sale throughout the world.  Sounds great ... and indeed it is!   Of course, it has its downside.  You will pay a healthy commission for the privilage of bidding and buying on-line and you will also have to absorb the cost of packing and shipping.  Some auction houses will arrange that for you, others won't.  Read the fine print before you buy.  And don't look for bargains.  A vastly bigger pool of bidders usually results in vastly bigger prices.

But let's get back to where I started ... For many dealers, the auctions have always been a major source of new stock.  I've relied on them for years and have always felt comfortable in any setting.  The auctioneers get to know you and for the most part, other dealers are friendly.  But I see it all changing.  Giant flat screens and banks of telephones in the sale room have turned what was once a congenial gathering, often with a joking auctioneer, into a trading floor with the local dealers being largely shut out.

I can see why the auctions do it.  It exposes their sales to a vastly bigger audience than the locals who have been attending their sales.  Perhaps the downside for them is, it's begining to drive once faithful local dealers away.  I, for one, stay away from auctions which are also shown live, on-line, and I've spoken to other dealers who feel the same way.   I find that prices tend to spiral upwards at these sales.  Perhaps it's collectors, but it amazes me that people will bid huge amounts for items that they haven't even seen or handled.  And it's frustrating  to drive a distance to preview the auction, then drive again to attend the auction, devote a day to it, only to be shut out by folks who haven't left their kitchen table or, who are bidding from work on their phone.

I'm not sure where it's all going, but who knew ... that the good old days... really were, the good old days.

It goes without saying, that this blog (or rant) is my own opinion.                                                                                                                                              

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