As soon as Sotheby's announced it would be the world's first auction house to sell over the internet (www.sothebys.com), pundits asked whether 256 years of traditional bidding could be replaced by monitor and mouse. Although users are unable to view objects personally, they can access an auction easily. For many, it's an introduction to a world they would never normally experience. Says a bullish Jackie Coulter, senior director of Sotheby's internet division: 'The site, launched this year in Canada, America, Germany and the UK, is on course to sell 40,000-50,000 lots by 2001.'
Anxious not to do a 'boo', the auction house held back on computer-crashing 3D rotation technology. 'This will come,' Coulter says, 'when we know it will add real benefit.' Each item has three or four photographs and stays on the site for up to three weeks, when bids can be placed. Half are made in the last 24 hours and a further 25% in the last three. To foil 'sniping' - bidding in the split-second when the virtual hammer falls - an offer made in the last five minutes extends the session by another 10. Thus all interested parties can continue bidding, just as they would in a live auction. The scramble for a rare original print of the 1776 US Declaration of Independence was extended by 47 minutes. It sold for dollars 8.14 million, highest price for any item bought on the internet.