Convinced that consumers are finally ready to shop online for Picassos and choice Persian rugs in addition to car parts and Pez dispensers, Sotheby’s, the blue-chip auction house, and eBay, the internet shopping giant, plan to announce that they have formed a partnership to stream Sotheby’s sales worldwide.
Starting this autumn, most of Sotheby’s New York auctions will be broadcast live on a new section of eBay’s website. Eventually the auction house expects to extend the partnership, adding online-only sales and streamed auctions taking place anywhere from Hong Kong to Paris to London. The pairing would upend the rarefied world of art and antiques, giving eBay’s 145 million customers instant bidding access to a vast array of what Sotheby’s sells, from fine wines to watercolours by Cézanne. This isn’t the first time the two companies have teamed up; a 2002 collaboration fizzled after only a year. But officials say the market has matured in recent years, making the moment right for a new collaboration.
Capturing the online market means reaching out beyond Sotheby’s relatively exclusive pool of customers — which it numbers at more than 100,000 — to 145 million on eBay, most of whom have never seen a gavel fall. It is also a striking reversal from Sotheby’s decision in 2006 to concentrate primarily on the high end of the business. The company’s own research shows that more than 50% of all lots sold at auction last year were in the $5,000 to $100,000 range — a chunk of the middle market it hopes eBay will help it reach. “Even if we only reach point 1% of eBay users, that’s huge for us,” said Bruno Vinciguerra, Sotheby’s chief operating officer. “The point is to make our sales more accessible to the broadest possible audience around the world, all the while remaining totally committed to our high end.” While those big-ticket artworks get the most attention, officials at Sotheby’s say that sales in the $50,000 to $5-million range make them the most money — though they declined to say just how much.
For eBay, which reported overall revenues of $16 billion in 2013, and $8.3 billion for its online auction unit, the goal of the partnership is to create a shopping mall with Sotheby’s as its anchor tenant. The company hopes that customers who might go there first to bid with Sotheby’s will then explore the rest of the site.
“We want eBay