The secrets behind Heritage’s massive online sales growth

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Image source Brian Turner

As the proportion of art bought at online auctions grows, auction houses all over the world are becoming widely accessible to international buyers. One auction house that has stayed ahead of the game is Dallas-headquartered Heritage Auctions, the world’s third largest auction house and the world’s largest collectibles auctioneer. It recently reported an increase of 42% over 2013 online auction sales, making 2014 its best overall year to date and its fifth straight year of growth.

Ed Beardsley, vice president and managing director of Fine & Decorative Arts at Heritage, has noted a strong appetite for ‘blue chip’ artists, American art (particularly Western painters), and Modern and Contemporary art.

He believes Heritage’s strong results reflect a growing appetite for buying at auctions – particularly online.

“The public is becoming less intimidated by the fact that they can bid against the big players and they are realising that if they’re passionate for an item they’ll perhaps get it for a price that they are very happy to pay. That goes across both online and live auctions, with online becoming a trusted way to bid.”

He says a key factor in Heritage’s impressive growth is the lines of communication that exist between Heritage and its buyers: one of his top tips for buying online is to not only read the online information about an item, but to ask the auction house questions: phone calls and emails will be dealt with helpfully if the auction house is reputable.

“Give the auction house a call and talk to the specialist: they really know the ins and the outs. Ask about condition, because that will significantly affect the price. Even though online seems distant, an email or picking up the phone is always possible – that’s why the specialists are here: to get to know their collectors, what they’re looking for and to answer any questions.

“With online sales, it’s an age old business done slightly differently, but it’s the same premise: know what you are bidding on, and ask questions if you have any concerns.”

Heritage Auctions has a lot of repeat business from buyers all over the world and gets to know its regular customers extremely well. This leads to a productive working relationship, whereby the auction house is able to keep them informed of any interesting finds.

“We know what they’re looking for, and we’ll be on the lookout. If something comes up we’ll always reach out to them and let them know.” On occasion this results in arranging a private sale rather than putting the item up for auction.

Heritage’s website is designed to make hunting for art easy, with anyone able to set up alerts for sales of work by their favourite artists, or to search for records of past sales.

“That’s one of the benefits of our website and why we do so well online,” he says. “We’ve got a very busy website and it’s designed for the collector who likes a lot of information.  We’ve got our archives going back 35 years, and you can watch trends and prices. You can watch what we’re doing in sales, you can put in key words and see what’s in an upcoming sale and you can track those lots without having to put a bid in.

“We believe in transparency and providing information so that buyers can make a qualified decision – and if they have questions about why something’s a certain price, they can call the specialist and find out if it’s extremely rare, extremely good condition, and other little nuances that affect the bidding price.”

With keen spending from its high net worth customers, Heritage Auctions looks set to see healthy growth in several key categories this year, including fine art and luxury goods, says Beardsley. Besides the continued appetite for ‘blue chip’ painters, he is also seeing – and nurturing – interest from younger collectors who are more likely to buy strong pieces by newer artists who have been commended to the auction house by curators.

“We’re watching for young emerging artists, and while more risky, the emerging artists field is one thing that young collectors can watch at auction houses.”