Sothebys teams with eBay to expand reach

Written by New York Times | London, New York | Updated: Jul 15 2014, 13:39pm hrs
Convinced that consumers are finally ready to shop online for Picassos and choice Persian rugs in addition to car parts and Pez dispensers, Sothebys, the blue-chip auction house, and eBay, the internet shopping giant, plan to announce that they have formed a partnership to stream Sothebys sales worldwide.

Starting this autumn, most of Sothebys New York auctions will be broadcast live on a new section of eBays 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 eBays 145 million customers instant bidding access to a vast array of what Sothebys sells, from fine wines to watercolours by Czanne. This isnt 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 Sothebys 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 Sothebys decision in 2006 to concentrate primarily on the high end of the business. The companys 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, thats huge for us, said Bruno Vinciguerra, Sothebys 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 Sothebys 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 Sothebys as its anchor tenant. The company hopes that customers who might go there first to bid with Sothebys will then explore the rest of the site.

We want eBay to be a destination, not just a utility, said Devin Wenig, president of Global EBay Marketplaces, which has been trying to gussy up its garage sale image by selling $100,000 shiny red Ferraris, designer clothes and yachts. If you look at what we were selling 10 years ago, its really different now, Wenig said. We sell a lot of expensive items, including roughly 13,000 automobiles every week to mobile shoppers. Customer trust in e-commerce has evolved. When it comes to art, a Sothebys deal via eBay will also carry the Sothebys imprimatur of authenticity.

In 270-year-old Sothebys move to broaden its customer base, some analysts say it risks tarnishing its storied image. In October eBay hired RJ Pittman, a former head of Apples e-commerce efforts, to oversee a redesign of its website, which now features a much heavier emphasis on lavish photographs that mimic the look of an upscale magazine. Meanwhile, Sothebys has dispatched its own team to make sure the eBay display doesnt look cheap.

Both sides know that the look and feel of the site needs to showcase the elegance of the Sothebys brand, said Sucharita Mulpuru, a retail analyst with Forrester Research. EBay cant just bring its old product detail page to this feature.