During online auctions, astute bidders can jump in and buy underpriced items. From his office on Bainbridge Island, a thirty-five minute ferry ride from Seattle, Smith can participate in book sales on an equal footing with dealers on the East Coast or in San Francisco, where most of the book-auction action is. “I’ve actually been on the phone to the auction house while I was watching eBay live,” he said. “It’s instantaneous, and it’s exciting. And you can do it right from home.” For major purchases, watching online but bidding by phone helps avoid one of the disadvantages of eBay Live Auctions—the extra buyer’s premium tacked on at the end. Auction houses add a fee—typically 15 to 20 percent—to each winning bid. Ebay charges the companies a 5 percent commission on sales made through its site, and nearly every auction house passes some or all of that on to the eBay bidders.
Everyone I spoke with about eBay Live Auctions knew about the extra cost, and no one minded. David Robbins, a roofing contractor who collects twentieth-century literature, said, “By the time I drive to the auction house and sit through the auction and drive home, it’s a lot of time. The time that [bidding online] saves is worth the extra money to me.” He added, “And I don’t like live auctions. I get nervous. I like bidding from my office.”
Teresia Adams, of Idler Fine Books, a catalog and Internet bookstore in Madison, Wisconsin, doesn’t mind the extra fees for another reason: PayPal. Successful bidders can pay for most items using eBay’s payment services, which in Adams’s case is connected to her American Express card. Most auction houses accept PayPal, but not all take credit cards. Using PayPal “allows me to get the most out of our available funds,” Adams wrote in an e-mail exchange. “For example, in a previous auction, I bought eight items and sold four before the bill was due.” The extra fee “is negligible at that point.” And she likes the convenience. “For the most part, my purchases are under $10,000, so it doesn’t seem worth it to fly around [to attend auctions in person] when I can take care of business from behind my desk. Moreover, with four children, it’s almost impossible to attend an auction, unless it’s close by.”
Both the strength of online bidding and its continued novelty was evident at Swann Auction Galleries’ April 28 Fine Books sale. While an audience of perhaps seventy-five buyers—mostly booksellers—looked on, company chairman George Lowry presided over the event from the front of the room. A member of his staff sat at a table with two laptops connected to the Internet. One showed eBay’s web site, to ensure that everything was working correctly. On the second computer, the lots from the sale were loaded in order, with standard bid increments preset. As Lowry announced the opening bid for each lot, the amount was entered into the eBay Live Auctions interface and transmitted to the dozen or so buyers watching and bidding on eBay. With the click of a mouse, each new bid from the floor or phone registered online. When someone bid from eBay, the Swann staffer at the Internet table shouted “Bid!” into the crowded auction room.
A series of Einstein lots early in the auction attracted several online bids, and the physicist’s first paper on special relativity, in a bound volume of Annalen der Physik, went to an Internet bidder. Lowry, who has run Swann Galleries since 1970, shook his head slightly and announced with some apparent pleasure, “Sold to outer space at $11,000.”
Donaldson, from Freeman’s, expressed a similar amazement at some eBay auction results. Occasionally, he said, “There is the amusing event when two or three eBay bidders continue fighting over an item long after the auction room has grown silent. The only sounds are the Internet bids being called out and a bit of grumbling from the floor.”
For the small group of dealers and collectors used to having auction rooms to themselves, eBay Live Auctions has made sales more competitive. Auction houses are generally happy about the increased exposure and prices, but now they have to contend with negative feedback (which dissatisfied eBay customers can leave in public view) and the Internet-speed responses to questions that online buyers have come to expect. Many auction houses provide more information on eBay than in their printed catalogs to forestall complaints (a good reason to check the online listings, even if you plan to bid by more conventional means).
Educating eBay bidders about live auctions has also been a learning process, particularly with the buyer’s premium, which regular eBay auctions don’t have, and shipping, a service many auction houses don’t provide. Matthew Quinn said that his company was now shipping all books purchased over the Internet. “We’re moving into a global marketplace,” he told me. “Buyers who are used to eBay expect shipping, and we are trying to accommodate them, but it’s been difficult at times.”
Julian Ellison, from Live Auctioneers, takes the long view of these changes. He reminds his clients that there was a time when the idea of taking absentee bids over the telephone or by fax was difficult to accept. The Internet isn’t any different. “It’s not about revolution,” he says. “It’s about evolution.”