Is Your Auction House Collector-Centric?

Rebekah Kaufman
Published on
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All eyes from the auction industry were focused recently on the Global Auction House Summit, held a few weeks ago in Paris. This signature, annual event was sponsored by Invaluable, a leading digital auction authority.

The gathering’s goals included sharing best practices and new technologies as well as creating a vision for continued success in today’s quickly evolving, international, and mobile-centric society. As someone who works for auction houses, advises colleagues on auction and collection strategies, and buys regularly at auction, I am excited to see how these top-tier discussions translate into actionable, positive changes in the industry we all know and love.

The idea of “the sky’s the limit” thinking also got me noodling the idea of optimizing buying at auction from the enthusiast’s perspective. That is, what could the industry do to make participating at auction more innovative, exciting, and appealing ? Here are three ambitious and “C”-centric ideas – ranging from mostly tactical to mostly strategic –  to get that conversation started.

Cataloging: It is not unusual for a collector to buy with their heart AND their head, and so the more information and images provided per item the better. Collectors want auction houses to be very specific and forthright about condition and restoration in their descriptions. This is especially true for items that are hard to photograph or that may have issues that can’t be captured on film, like odors, hairline fractures, or other “invisible” losses or wear. Sharing the provenance associated with an item, if applicable, is very appealing to some collectors. And video is a great way to put a “shareable” spotlight on an exceptional item. Yes, transparent and comprehensive cataloging takes time and has associated costs, and even risks sometimes. But it also builds confidence and trust with buyers, especially those who have had negative auction experiences in the past. 

The importance of the traditional print catalog is changing, too, as more collectors make online channels, including Auction Daily, their primary source of industry information and reference. Many younger buyers see print catalogs as unwanted “stuff,” while older ones have simply run out of room for them. It is possible that the print catalog as we know it today may be going the way of the rotary phones, typewriters, and pagers. 

Communities: Many collectors love to talk about their finds, bucket list items, and even “the one that got away.” They also enjoy sharing their insights and expertise with others – often honed after almost a lifetime of solo “independent study.” The internet, and resulting online communities, have opened up enormous international opportunities for auction houses to connect with customers and prospects through social media channels, as well as capture the wisdom of the crowd for unusual offerings. Relationships with third party expert bloggers, collaborative viewing events on Facebook, and real-time, online chats with in-house category experts are just a few social ways auction houses can create authentic relationships, become less transactional, and build credibility, with current and potential collector-customers. 

Culture: Things have changed – a lot – in regards to the expectations and values of today’s collector in terms of auction purchases. It has been my experience that buyer’s attention spans, space available for purchases, and tolerance for unresponsive customer service and merchandise that negatively aligns with its cataloging have all taken a nosedive. Meanwhile, the quest for, personalized information, and unambiguous billing and shipping policies have become non-negotiable priorities. Given the greater number of buying options, as well as channels to rate one’s experience (or satisfaction/dissatisfaction), it has never been more imperative for auction houses to be in touch with, and to zero in on, what matters most with their collecting customers.