Why Auction Rooms Seem Empty These Days  

Why Auction Rooms Seem Empty These Days

Why Auction Rooms Seem Empty These Days

Bidders Aren’t Lacking, They Just Phone It In or Go Online

Why Auction Rooms Seem Empty These Days

Employees taking phone bids at an April 6, 2014 jewelry sale at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers in Chicago.

June 15, 2014 4:51 p.m. ET

There are certain situations where you still wouldn’t want to be caught without a paddle. But more than ever, an auction isn’t one of them.

The tradition of signaling a bid at an art or collectibles auction by raising a numbered paddle, or even your hand, in a room full of competing collectors is fading fast. Many auction rooms are sparsely attended these days despite widespread interest in the items being sold, with most bids coming in online or, even more commonly, by phone. “The sales rooms increasingly are less full,” says Amy Todd Middleton, world-wide head of marketing at Sotheby’s.

It’s a trend driven in part by the increasing globalization of the art and collectibles markets. But it also reflects the long-held preference for anonymity among bidders—a preference now easier to satisfy with the spread of online bidding platforms. And it’s partly a matter of simple convenience, as more collectors are using cellphones to call in bids from just about anywhere.

“People are busy, they’re working. They don’t want the expense of flying here, waiting four or five hours for their lot to show up,” says Paul Minshull, chief operating officer at Dallas-based Heritage Auctions. “They can sit at home in their underpants and bid by phone or on Heritage Live,” the auction house’s online bidding site.

Wall Street Journal Christies Auction Stats

There are some drawbacks for collectors. First, they know even less about who they’re bidding against, which in some cases can leave them wondering how high they should go. Second, the ease of remote bidding means more people bidding, and that can inflate selling prices. And finally, a cellphone connection can be lost at the worst possible moment.

But none of that has stemmed the trend toward absentee bidding.

New Money

Call-in bids have been part of auctions for decades, but auctioneers say the number has grown dramatically in recent years. The bank of telephones at most major sales now averages 20 to 30, and it has reached around 70 on occasion, they say.

Many of those calls are coming from countries where wealth has surged in recent years, including China, Russia, India and Brazil. The newly wealthy have always been eager bidders, and today in China and Russia particularly a growing number of collectors want to repatriate objects made in those countries and sold abroad long ago.

Collectors from all over the world also increasingly are bidding online, thanks to the efforts of auction houses and third parties to make that possible. In addition to Heritage, Christie’s and Sotheby’s have their own online bidding platforms. Others use online services like LiveAuctioneers or Invaluable LLC.

Hiding in Plain Sight

Bidding by telephone or online helps preserve a collector’s anonymity. Some collectors find that useful even if they are in the auction room. “These days, you see a multitude of devices” at auctions, says Sotheby’s Ms. Middleton.

In the sales room at Heritage Auctions, you might spot Rolling Hills, Calif., coin dealer Brian Hodge bidding on certain lots, but don’t look for him to raise his hand. He is staring at his iPad, where the auction house’s Heritage Live service is streaming the video and audio of the auction in real time, and making his bids on the site.

“I prefer to do my bidding online, so other people in the room won’t know who they are bidding against and won’t know who bought it,” Mr. Hodge says.

Many collectors prefer not to draw attention out of concern for their safety. Some, like Mr. Hodge, also like to keep their bids anonymous because they believe their interest in an object acts as a sort of stamp of approval, encouraging other collectors to join in the bidding and driving up the sale price.

Of course, that also becomes a negative for those collectors who are looking for that stamp of approval. And while prominent collectors may be able to damp bidding in some cases by remaining anonymous, the ability to bid online or by phone can have the opposite effect by making it easier for more bidders to participate in an auction.

“Whereas in the past we might have had only two bidders for a certain lot, now, because people all over the world find out about it and want to own it, we might have 10, and that definitely increases the prices,” says Leslie Hindman, founder of Chicago-based Leslie Hindman Auctioneers Inc.

Bad Call

Although auctioneers prefer landlines, they say bidders typically use cellphones, often participating in auctions while in a car or on a boat, at a restaurant or a sporting event.

Auctioneers have learned how to deal with delays while the people manning the phones at the auction try to reconnect with a cellphone caller. They may buy some time with an anecdote. Peter Loughrey, president of Los Angeles Modern Auctions, says he may “launch into reminder remarks,” informing the audience about California’s sales tax, when purchased items should be picked up—even “that the lunch truck is here.”

Sometimes, though, the call is lost. Henrik Hanstein, director of Kunsthaus Lempertz, an auction house in Cologne, Germany, recalls one such incident. “There was someone on a mobile phone who was bidding hundreds of thousands of euros for a painting,” he says. “But he drove into a tunnel and the call was dropped. He tried desperately to call back, but you can’t reach the sales room directly, so he lost the painting.”

You might say he was caught up a creek without a paddle.

Mr. Grant is a writer in Amherst, Mass. He can be reached at reports@wsj.com.

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