Issue #10  2/5/2000
Sotheby's Auction Site Opens To Mixed Reviews

By Alex Novak

The new Sotheby's on-line auction site has opened for business, but it looks more like it is in "beta" than "ready for prime time".  The site's infrastructure is clearly not up for the traffic; its search engine is possibly the weakest I've seen on a web site of this scale; photo descriptions are misleading; start and reserve prices are generally too high; and the format is cumbersome and slow to use.

Reportedly over $45 million was spent, but too little seems to have been accomplished for this huge sum of money.  Dealer input seems to be totally ignored.  But don't feel bad, because I know of at least one Internet consulting company, which was paid $50,000 by Sotheby's and reportedly had all of its recommendations ignored too.

Sotheby's multi-million dollar advertising program for their new on-line service was equally misplaced in my opinion by a major ad agency, which, of course, proceeded to place the bulk of the business with big traditional print media.  That's an easy and highly profitable route for the agency, but rarely gives results for the client.  Oh, if you missed Sotheby's full-page ad in the LA Times, it was buried in the nearly thousand-page Special Issue the Times did just before Christmas.  Yes, Sotheby's bought into the major search engines and some of the large portals, but these are also passé. And they're talking television! 

If only a larger portion of all this was spent on the art and photo art publication market, Sotheby's could have dominated the eyeballs that might actually be bidding on its site. 

So, what are the problems with the site itself?

Let's start with a system that when it first opened up for bids was slower than eBay during a crash.  Now that traffic and bids have slowed to a trickle, you can get back on.  But what the site clearly needs is better Internet connections and possibly a stronger bank of servers, so it can actually survive real traffic when it finally shows up.  A mirrored site in two different parts of the country would also help.

The search engine?  It's a toy that often pulled up totally inappropriate items during its opening weeks.  There are virtually no multiple search capabilities--a must for a site like this one. 

A major problem is a bidder can't even bookmark an item to return to bid when they have to, let alone use any bidding software.  That's a must for any serious on-line bidder.

The descriptions on photographs are also a real problem.  I don't know whether to blame Sotheby's, the dealers or--more likely--inadequate training, although to Sotheby's credit they did actually provide dealer training.  My particular concern is over something that is supposed to be illegal in NY and is now against new AIPAD ethics rules.  It seems that most dealers are filling in the "date of object" as to when the photograph was taken and not when the print was made, misleading (in most cases) bidders to believe that these are vintage pieces.  Lewis Hines/Man Ray scandals all over again!  Oh and if you think you have a guarantee that will protect you, think again and read the VERY fine print.  Here's a small sample: "The Seller may request, before determining whether to rescind a sale under the Authenticity Guarantee, that the Buyer obtain the written opinion of up to two recognized experts in the relevant field who are mutually acceptable to the Seller and the Buyer."  First, try and get two such experts that are acceptable to the seller, and second, what do you think that will cost you? 

As I've said many times before in these newsletters: at auction, whether on-line or off, it is always buyer beware.  An email to the dealer listing the item clarifying condition and vintage is a necessity, but not a cure-all.  And while most are top photo dealers, not all are that well known and being known doesn't mean that you'll always be accurate.

Then there are the cosmetic things, like the site only showing 10 items at a time, or not being able (any more, at least) to view all of the photographs together.  Now you have to go into three separate areas (19th, 20th and contemporary).  Many of us buy and collect in ALL of these areas.  The small pop-up view of the photo is also annoying.  Items do not always seem to line up properly under many of the listings.

I also wonder what Sotheby's will do to keep the pipeline full.  It's already down to 247 photographs at my last count and that's with a three-week bidding period.  That is about 50 off of last week.  Compare that to eBay's 60,000 photograph items over a similar period.  Yes, most items on eBay are junk, but there's also an awful lot of higher-level material lately-- and they are selling.  Supposedly Sotheby's intends to put up items in its own inventory, but be aware some of these are "damaged goods" that Sotheby's is selling off with the blessing of its insurance company.

Few items are getting bids on the Sotheby's site.  Sotheby's hoped to get 30% sales, which they claimed to be 50% higher than the average on-line auction results.  Funny, I've gotten about 65% on Ebay last year.  And in 1998 I used to get 80%.  Just set reasonable reserves, put up interesting items and you get bids. While Sotheby's can't really control that, I do think their estimated sales percentage is "wildly optimistic" at the moment.  It looks more like under 10% to this observer.  Are most on-line buyers rejecting the 10% buyer's premium?  It's hard to tell, and I doubt Sotheby's did an adequate job of researching this factor before making it a core part of its site. And perhaps if Sotheby's did away with its clause preventing dealers from using any other site for items over $300, they might get experienced Internet dealers to put up material.

OK, so what's right about the site?  At least there is some "editing" of material.  You don't get the thousands of $1 stereo cards, cheap '50s soft porn, and view master reels that you have to wade through on other sites.  Items are in the right price range for more serious collectors.

And then there is the Sotheby's name and brand.  It could be powerful if used correctly and not squandered with bad media decisions.  Frankly if Sotheby's spent more promotional dollars directed to its traditional customers, it would get more bang for the dollar.  It's got a great list and a wonderful franchise.  Hopefully it will wake up and use these strengths, which it has barely tapped yet.

I'm sure eventually Sotheby's will get it right.  It took Ebay over two years to come down off its high horse and deal more directly with its problems.  I just had high hopes that Sotheby's would heed the competitive lesson rather than do it the hard way.

Novak has over 45 years experience in the photography-collecting arena. He is a long-time member and formally board member of the Daguerreian Society, and, when it was still functioning, he was a member of the American Photographic Historical Society (APHS). He organized the 2016 19th-century Photography Show and Conference for the Daguerreian Society. He is also a long-time member of the Association of International Photography Art Dealers. Novak has been a member of the board of the nonprofit Photo Review, which publishes both the Photo Review and the Photograph Collector, and is currently on the Photo Review's advisory board. He was a founding member of the Getty Museum Photography Council. He is author of French 19th-Century Master Photographers: Life into Art.

Novak has had photography articles and columns published in several newspapers, the American Photographic Historical Society newsletter, the Photograph Collector and the Daguerreian Society newsletter. He writes and publishes the E-Photo Newsletter, the largest circulation newsletter in the field. Novak is also president and owner of Contemporary Works/Vintage Works, a private photography dealer, which sells by appointment and at exhibit shows, such as AIPAD New York and Miami, Art Chicago, Classic Photography LA, Photo LA, Paris Photo, The 19th-century Photography Show, etc.