By Patricia Reaney
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Two of the biggest names in auction sales, the traditional Sotheby's and the digital pioneer eBay, said on Monday they are joining forces to make it easier to buy antiques, collectibles and works of fine art online.
The two plan to stream selected auctions with live bidding in real time late this year or early in 2015 from Sotheby's New York headquarters.
The deal will connect the 270-year-old Sotheby's, with its extensive inventory of fine art, antiques, books, jewels, watches and furniture, with eBay's 145 million active buyers around the world.
"We are joining with eBay to make our sales more accessible to the broadest possible audience around the world," Bruno Vinciguerra, Sotheby's chief operating officer, said in a statement.
Traditional evening auctions, where contemporary or Impressionist works of art can sell for $50 million and more, will not be included on eBay. Auctions from other locations such as London, Hong Kong, Paris or Geneva could follow in the future.
Auction houses, including Sotheby's and rival Christie's, have conducted online sales for years. But the deal gives Sotheby's the advantage of eBay's digital technology and online marketing skills, and potentially more bidders and higher prices and sales.
“Combining our expertise, our ability to source material and authenticate it, and the quality of what Sotheby's offers with eBay's technology platform and reach it makes for a very compelling combination," Andrew Gully, worldwide director of communications at Sotheby's, told Reuters.
"The audience is so large I don't think at this point we can predict specifically what impact it will have. But with more bidders it is logical to assume prices can go higher in an auction," he added.
Auctions of jewelry, watches, prints, wine, photographs and some fine art are expected to be streamed online with prices in the range of $5,000 to $100,000. Themed auctions, such as Sotheby's recent roll and rock memorabilia sale, may also be streamed online.
The venture comes as the prices of individual works of art at auction have escalated to record highs. Francis Bacon's triptych painting "Three Studies of Lucian Freud" sold for $142.4 million last November in New York, the highest price ever for an item sold at auction.
Total sales in the global art and antiques market rose 8 percent to $65.9 billion last year, the highest level since 2007, with Asian buyers playing an increasingly important role, according to the European Fine Art Foundation's annual report.
Online sales could grow at a rate of at least 25 percent per year after accounting for around 5 percent of sales in 2013, the foundation said.
Sotheby's said online bidders competed for 17 percent of the total lots it offered in 2013 while the number of lots purchased online jumped 36 percent compared to 2012.
John James Audubon's book "The Birds of America," which fetched $3.5 million, set the record for an online purchase in a live auction at Sotheby's in April.
For eBay, the deal with Sotheby's is a chance to expand into the live auction market.
"When we combine its inventory with eBay's technology platform and global reach, we can give people access to the world's finest, most inspiring items - anytime, anywhere and from any device," said Devin Wenig, the president of eBay Marketplaces.
Shares of Sotheby's closed up 1 percent, or 40 cents, at $40.09 on Monday. Shares of eBay finished down 0.7 percent, or 34 cents, at $51.16.
(Reporting by Patricia Reaney; Editing by Leslie Adler)