|By Eric C. Rodenberg
Within the antique and fine art market, the major players of the online live auction business are LiveAuctioneers and Artfact. The two companies compete on the open market for more auction business.
Toward that goal, LiveAuctioneers and Artfact have recently instituted new policies and prices.
Artfact, which previously insisted on an exclusive 3-year contract prohibiting auction companies from using competitor services, recently dropped that restriction. Previously, many auctioneers chafed under Artfact’s insistence on exclusivity.
LiveAuctioneers, which has offered a range of services at different prices, recently announced it is lowering prices and introducing a flat fee. Coincidently, the new fee – $650 and 3 percent – is the price point traditionally offered by Artfact.
Possibly in the background of this open market struggle for auction business is the presence of a much larger company – eBay – which is reportedly making overtures to select auction houses while considering a return to the live auction venue.
Though the likelihood of the eBay entering the live auction arena in 2013 is remote, AntiqueWeek has learned that administrative and technical staff from eBay’s vertical markets division are looking into how they can best integrate with auction companies. They could be back in the live auction arena in 2014.
Officials from eBay would not comment on their interest in returning to the live auction market. The company conducted its last Live Auction on Dec. 31, 2008.
In the end, eBay’s decision to pull the plug on its Live Auction was a business decision. Although eBay will not comment, speculation is that lawsuits, technical headaches and increasing negative feedback from buyers and sellers, alike, were not worth the trouble.
However, newer technology and the expansion of Internet live auction bidding may be enough to draw eBay back. If so, that may put more pressure on LiveAuctioneers and Artfact.
LiveAuctioneers CEO Julian R. Ellison, whose company had partnered with eBay Live Auction, dismisses the possibility of eBay’s return to the live arena. “That’s a rumor I hear every year, I don’t put much stock in it,” Ellison said.
Artfact CEO Adam Kirsch believes there may be too many obstacles for the “eBay culture” to align with auctioneers.
“When Artfact emerged out of eBay, it was our intention to work with both the buyers and sellers,” Kirsch said. “We would be surprised if their model would integrate well with auctioneers now. For one thing, the eBay people do not want a buyer’s rate auction. Right now, that doesn’t fit well with auctioneers.”
Auctioneers are divided on whether they would go back to eBay; however, there is a cadre of auctioneers who are irresistibly drawn to the number of bidders offered on eBay.
“That’s what it’s all about – eyeballs,” said one auctioneer.
However, the buyer’s premium is a major “fly in the ointment.” According to one insider, eBay “will not allow the buyer’s premium to stand.” Auctioneers are just as adamant on retaining the buyer’s fee.
Can eBay be content to sit on the sidelines? According to eBay financial statements, revenue for eBay Live auctions for the third quarter of 2008, shows the company posted revenue of $2.12 billion, up $228 million from the same period of 2007. As in the past, eBay officials attributed continued gains to its diversified portfolio of business.
But, the numbers LiveAuctioneers and Artfact have posted during the past four years demonstrate the expansion of the worldwide Internet market since eBay left the field.
Many U.S. auction houses credit Internet sales for allowing them to stay in business. The added revenue from emerging global economies – particularly Asia and Eastern Europe – has prompted larger, and often unpredictable, prices.
“More traffic, more bidders, more profits,” said Ellison, touting LiveAuctioneer’s first 10 years in business.
During the third quarter of 2012, there were 8.5 million visits to the LiveAuctioneers site, reflecting an increase of 21 percent more than the comparable quarter of 2011.
Mobile devices – including iPad, iPhone and android-based devices – not available to eBay in 2008, reportedly posted 8.5 million visits to the LiveAuctioneer site, Ellison said.
“This showed a 161 percent jump over last year’s third-quarter figure,” he added.
The Boston-based Artfact reports 13 million annual visitors and lists 100,000 items available at auction each day. The company claims to list $1 billion worth of fine art, antiques and collectibles available at auctions around the world. Kirsch and COO Rob Weisberg have made a conscious effort to quickly adapt to the market, both from the standpoint of fulfilling niche needs and technical improvements.
In late 2009, Artfact bought Auctionzip as a carrier of more smaller, rural auction centers. Auctionzip had 111 auctioneer listing items when Artfact bought in, now there are 25,000 auction listings. The live online auctions have increased from 241 to now more than 7,000; and the 70,000 lots listed on Auctionzip now exceed 112 million.
Artfact, itself, is reserved for the premier catalog; and the overseas traffic is captured by its third platform, Invaluable, headquartered in the United Kingdom.
Since Artfact shifted away from its exclusivity rules, its client-auctioneers can choose “exclusive” and “non-exclusive” modes of operation – with auctioneers now split 50-50 between the options, Weisberg reported.