Online bidding no substitute for floor experience, auctioneers say

But Internet has its advantages in a large country like Canada 

The auction scene has had a change of face in recent years, with many auction houses using new technology to modernize their bidding systems and bring the bidding floor directly to their customers, wherever they may be.

While many of Canada’s most prominent auction houses offer a variety of ways to enter bids – whether by phone, mail, fax, online or in person – most of the action has moved online, said Marc Verret, owner and auctioneer with the Canadian Numismatic Company, in Quebec.

“One would be kidding himself if he thought that the new online services haven’t, in some way, hindered actual auction attendances,” said Verret.

“With today’s hectic schedules, travelling fees and business and family responsibilities, it has become more difficult for collectors to attend auctions of any kind – whether it’s numismatics, art or jewelry – so indeed, we have seen a diminishing attendance at the live venues.”

As a result, Verret said, Internet platforms have become somewhat of a “crutch” that auction houses must offer to help consignors maximize their sales and auctioneers cover their overhead costs.

“Production of catalogues, mailings and even the auction platforms take a large monetary portion of the sales and percentages,” he said. “There are advantages and disadvantages to both.”

Kirk Parsons, co-owner of Kitchener, Ont.-based Colonial Acres, which hosted its inaugural auction May 22-23, said offering various ways to bid encourages more collectors to join in on the fun. He agreed that one advantage of a diverse bidding platform is accessibility, allowing both young and old to come together without forcing either to change their ways.

“For the old-school collectors who may not be computer-savvy enough to attempt online bidding, they can still come sit and join the bidding in person,” said Parsons.

While the biggest advantage of an online bidding platform is said to be its potential for reaching people from all over the world, the disadvantages include a negative impact on floor attendance and an increased chance for problems to arise.

“You’re now dealing with a large clientele that in many situations you don’t know or have never dealt with,” said Verret, “and this can lead to an increase in problems such as an increase of unpaid lots, an increase of NSF (non-sufficient funds) payments, and lost and unclaimed packages.”

What’s more, if the Internet or the computers being used to surf it go down, then it’s lights out for the auction and its bidders.

“Breakdowns can cause total havoc when it comes to live auctions,” said Verret.

Another auctioneer, Brian Bell, of Moncton-based Geoffrey Bell Auctions, said online bidding has been consistent, but floor bidding remains “very strong” for higher-end material.

“We’ve had a consistent response from online bidders, but the floor is very strong when interesting and fresh material is offered. We’ve been very fortunate to acquire larger and more interesting collections, thus encouraging people to feel a part of the sale and show up.”

Bell agreed the move toward online bidding is likely due to the costs involved in attending auctions.

“The expense incurred is becoming discouraging for people who travel to shows. People would rather spend the money on collectibles than hotels, airfare and incurring greater food expenses.”

And despite the growing number of online auctions and bidders, Bell believes there are still benefits to carving out a spot for yourself on the bidding floor.

“It’s always more exciting to touch, feel and view the items, but it’s mostly the experience of speaking with people with similar interests and the ability to further your learning that’s the biggest advantage.”

Bell offered this advice to any potential bidders: “Read, learn and show up to view and handle a lot of material. Practice and you’ll become an expert.”

Verret said he takes the good with the bad when it comes to online sales.

“The Internet has somewhat increased the potential of worldwide sales, even if it has diminished floor attendance,” he said. “It comes at a cost. It has increased the overall administrative costs of putting sales together and the potential of administrative issues such as identified above.”

On a positive note, he said, recent years have seen a slight increase in floor attendance.

“Not being able to necessarily attribute this change to any particular reason, it does seem that things are slowly coming around.”

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