On-line art auctions part of big pictureTHERE was a stuffy reaction from Sotheby's and Christie's when upstarts Simon Montford and James Corsellis suggested they come aboard their on-line art auction site.
Armed with little more than a computer and an outrageous idea, the two young Brits expected these venerable institutions to abandon centuries of tradition. Over 150 auctioneers have now signed up with Auctions On-Line and more are adding their names to the list every week. Fine art auctions have come to the Internet with a vengeance.
The art auction game is big business, although so fragmented that no one can be sure of its exact worth. It's estimated that the 825-plus firms dotted around the world turn over about $2-billion (R10-billion) a year. Sotheby's and Christie's together account for 39 percent of the market.
Theirs is a genteel sort of industry, with beautiful catalogues, elegantly understated bidding procedures and big commissions, payable by both the buyer and the seller.
Enter the dynamic duo.
Montford, who ran a small advertising agency, and Corsellis, a part-time Internet consultant, met at a party a few years ago and hit on the idea of using the Internet to link auction houses scattered around the world. Their system would be a boon for collectors, making it easy to bid and providing information via a click of the mouse.
Their first step was to persuade the various firms that theirs was the best method of getting information out to the world, which they did by securing the rights to publish sale catalogues on-line.
Their strategy paid off handsomely. Auctions On-Line's site features 4 000 catalogues from 150 auction houses, including Phillips and Bonhams, representing over $400-million worth of art, antiques and collectables.
Experts say the fine art auction market grew by 11 percent last year and could reach $4-billion by 2001. By that time, say Corsellis and Montford, they expect to control three-quarters of the on-line catalogues, which would mean a useful $3,75-million in commissions.
However, on-line bidding does not excite everyone. As one dealer points out, the possibility of losing your Internet connection just as you're about to secure a Matisse is just too awful to contemplate.