Published: September 12, 2000
BOSTON, MASS. – Word of a new Internet antiques firm named AntiquesAmerica.com first leaked to the trade at the Ellis Memorial Antique Show in October 1999. The firm, incorporated in July 1999, had just rented space on Congress Street close to Boston’s South Station. Founders attempted to recruit staff members and advisors. Since last January, Antiques and The Arts Weekly has conducted a series of interviews with the founder, executives, and employees of the firm. Perceptions of the company’s goals, operational plan, and practices have been in a state of flux as the staff worked through layers of the creative process. This story has been held until more comprehensive answers were obtained.
Among the thousands of Internet antiques Web sites, AntiquesAmerica.com is distinguished by its potential capital assets and the professional business management skills of its executives. However, those same executives are inexperienced in the antiques market, and some of their commercial programs may be inefficient. The firm aspires to become a virtual university, and the foundation for that component is a museum affiliation section that has created innovative programs.
There are plans for a major retailing site, but untested aspects of the commercial plan render it unpredictable. A more predictable outcome is that some competing retail sites offering antiques will increase the amount of information they provide to the public.
Last January, Julien Tavener, founder of AntiquesAmerica.com, stated that he began the firm after three years of careful planning. While he stated that he had a concept of the site’s overall direction, he also acknowledged that the firm had not defined its revenue sources. He was confident that revenue sources would emerge when the site was launched.
In speaking of his vision, Tavener often used the term “university of the Internet,” and he indicated that his site would not be “another retail site.” His cosmopolitan vision was conveyed by statements such as “We will cover the entire span of the market from postcards to highboys.” He envisioned a staff working in close harmony toward a common goal.
Tavener is a respected member of the print world. For a decade, he has owned Haley and Steele, a nationally active print firm based in Boston. Other antiquarian print specialists hold him in esteem, and decorators trust his eye. Although he had limited contact with other segments of the antiques community, he trusted that “others [would] share my vision.” He probably underestimated the huge task and cost of launching a substantial firm that would span the antiques community, and also have a significant technological arm.
Tavener benefited from four elements that eluded most antiques Web site founders. Firstly, he was based in Boston, a city with a deep pool of antiques experts and with world-class decorative and fine arts reference libraries.
Secondly, Boston has a tremendous infrastructure of high-speed computer tubes and lines. Elsewhere in the nation, real estate adjacent to high-speed computer tubes rents at a super premium, but in Boston similar real estate in the vicinity of the Big Dig was available at a discount.
Thirdly, renowned curator Jonathan Fairbanks was seeking a position in the Boston area after his dismissal from the Museum of Fine Arts.
Fourthly, the Allston-Brighton neighborhood of Boston was a leading center for creating television commercials and producing PBS documentaries on short contracts. That community had a surplus of excellent media talent seeking opportunities to develop multimedia shorts for the Internet.
A quest for financial backing led Tavener to a recently founded Cambridge, Mass. firm named NetVentures. In early April, NetVentures made a substantial investment in AntiquesAmerica.com, and became the major owner of the firm. Tavener returned to Haley and Steele, and on April 7 Dekkers Davidson was appointed the firm’s first CEO. Since then, Davidson has installed a new administrative team.
In early 1999, Adam Kirsch founded NetVentures as a venture capital firm specializing in Internet companies. A staff of ten people works at the home office of NetVentures. Kirsch was a managing director of Bain Capital, an early investor in Staples. Since investing in AntiquesAmerica.com, NetVentures has also funded mycounsel.com, openstudio.com, and kaivo.com. The firm has total assets of approximately $50,000,000 with most of that money held in reserve. There are a number of other private investors in AntiquesAmerica.com, and the total amount of money invested in the company is over $5 million.
Davidson has a strong background in business management. After receiving his BA from St. Lawrence University, he earned an MBA from Harvard University, and most recently he had served as president of Canada’s Rogers Wireless Ontario Region. He was previously vice president, New England, for Sprint Personal Communications Services, and vice president at Mercer Management Consulting.
AntiquesAmerica.com is less accessible to Internet users than most antiques and arts Web sites. It can be quickly reached via Media One broadband service for subscribers in Boston. That service is being extended to some Boston suburbs. However, an antiques dealer with a laptop computer interfacing with a 56K modem serviced by a telephone line will find a slower service. With his system, the site opens and operates at a reasonable speed, but if a person has seen the site over a cable connection, then he will notice that loading is slower with a telephone connection.
When skeptical Internet users acquire new computers for specialized uses such as graphics and database management, they often protect those computers by keeping them offline. A consequence of erecting firewalls in this manner is that these users continue using older, less powerful machines online. At sites designed to rapidly download particularly huge quantities of material, the older systems may not synchronize with the site due to slow modems, slow processors, limited available memory, and, most often, an unsuitable browser.
CEO Davidson realizes that some potential users cannot open his site, and points to heavy video sites like Disney that are yet less accessible. However, those aspire to be entertainment sites, not antiques universities. The only antiques site that seems to have as severe an access problem is the Rijksmuseum. We raised the issue with the deputy director of the Rijksmuseum when he was in Boston, and we raise it here.
Davidson replied that the technical staff is constantly working to improve user access. He anticipates access will become less of an issue as technical refinements are made at the site and as users replace older computers with newer models.
When the site is accessed, files are downloaded to the user’s computer. Users can copy files that are word-processing documents or picture images. However, databases are protected, and only a single entry can be downloaded at a time. For example, users can copy an entire article by former Christie’s senior vice president of educational services Elisabeth (Betsey) Garret, but they cannot download the entire database of museums in Maine.
AntiquesAmerica.com aspires to be a university of the Internet, and a major information component is the museum section. The firm creatively applies media advances to the development of museum presentations. Museum staffs across the nation speak with familiarity about the site. It is apparent that other museums are looking to this site for ideas and models for enriching Web sites for their museums.
Jonathan Fairbanks is responsible for museum relations. His most ambitious project is a three-year affiliation with the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities. He closely coordinates planning on this project with Jane Nylander, director of SPNEA. The Web site has a section devoted to SPNEA house museums, collections, and publications. Both Fairbanks and Davidson indicate that the firm is conferring with other museums to develop similar affiliations.
The most innovative element is the use of slide shows with voice-overs that present tours of house museums and display highlights of collections. The experience of viewing the slide shows approaches that of watching videotapes. A student living in Oregon can experience a walk-through tour of an Eighteenth Century New England home. Former owner of Sloan’s Green Guide To Antiquing, Lisa Freeman, commented, “The natural next step will be streaming video. At this time, most computers do not have sufficient bandwidth to receive that much information, but that will change. New technology will multiply our programming options.”
Museums are likely to explore creating similar slide shows by outside vendors rather than attempting it in-house. Slide shows require a small team with advanced technological skills. State-of-the-art service is available in Hollywood, New York and Boston, but fine multimedia vendors can be found in most states.
AntiquesAmerica.com is making out-of-print museum periodicals available by using the page-format copying technology. Antiques America has converted most back issues of SPNEA’s periodical Old Time New England to a digital format.
Some readers perform similar conversions at home with a scanner connected to a graphics computer that stores data on CDs. Museums have generally not utilized this technology, but it merits consideration.
Reader use of early publications will hinge on the library services provided, particularly indexing and critical annotation. Writings on American fine and decorative arts prior to 1965 sometimes lacked scholarly skepticism, and amateur writers often struggled laboriously. Even renowned writers of the earlier period were sometimes overly presumptive or easily deceived. The famed Wallace Nutting was tricked with many faked and married clocks and pieces of furniture. His less careful contemporaries were more frequently fooled. Alfred Barr was no Theodore Stebbins. There are some interesting nuggets in early periodicals, but appropriate librarian services are needed to conveniently locate the veins.
AntiquesAmerica.com provides worldwide access to Old Time New England by dedicating both data storage capacity and access lines to this function. Industry observers will attempt to gauge whether user response justifies the substantial cost of Internet service. Alternatively museums could provide public access to out-of-date publications by CD or DVD storage. The entire run would fit on a single DVD that could be sold for a few dollars.
Fairbanks and his staff are compiling the most comprehensive list of museums in America. Discretion is being exercised, and some museums have been left off the list. Fairbanks explained, “While we have sought to make the list comprehensive, we have also weeded out a few museums that in our judgement offered little to the public. When we finish with the list of museums in the United States, we will go onto to Canada, Mexico, and the world.”
Individual antiques enthusiasts with Internet access have already assembled their customized lists of museums. AntiquesAmerica.com’s list will be useful for locating museums in unfamiliar areas when antiques enthusiasts prepare to travel. It sometimes appears that search engines pirate each other’s databases, and if they do, then slightly altered versions of the Fairbanks museum list might appear elsewhere.
As long as Fairbanks actively works at AntiquesAmerica.com, museum affiliations will remain a beachhead for the company. He and Betsey Garrett have assembled an Editorial Board that includes curators or directors from most major museums in America.
When competing antiques Web sites search for arrangements with museums, they are likely to be less global since they do not aspire to become virtual universities. Probably they will target museums in their local area or museums that share their subject field. With multiple suitors, museum boards are likely to seek multiple affiliations rather than singular arrangements, and the critical review of proposals will intensify.
Most major museums are currently developing hugely expanded Web sites created by in-house staffs. The Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston are a few of many museums that will soon have expanded Web sites displaying substantial portions of their collections. Smaller museums with tightly focused collections will be more likely to benefit by partnering with AntiquesAmerica.com and similar firms.
AntiquesAmerica.com has not yet conducted an education program, but its market is anticipating high quality symposia. Betsey Garrett directs the educational division, and it is expected that she will offer distinguished programs similar to those she organized for Sotheby’s and more recently for Christie’s. The first education weekend will be in Boston, and it will coincide with the Ellis Memorial Antiques Show. That will be an onsite, rather than online, program.
A strong content feature with some market material is the Spotlight section managed by Lisa Freeman. Each month one topic is selected, and seven to twelve articles on the topic are posted on the site. After a topic’s featured month, the Spotlight series is archived so that the material is permanently accessible online. Some topics to date have been silver, gardens, hunting and fishing, decoys, and scrimshaw. The academic pedantic writing style creeps into some reports, but there has been good content for determined readers.
Lisa Freeman and her staff have created an antiques dealer directory with 18,000 listings. However, when we jointly searched the system, we had limited success. For instance, we could not find furniture specialist Clark Pearce. It was determined that as a consultant, he did not meet the company’s criteria for the dealer list. While that technicality is correct, Pearce and similar consultants are a major element of the antiques market.
Our next search was for antiques dealer Marla Segal, but we could not find her in a name search because her middle name was misspelled in the database. It is a bit much to expect the user to know the middle names of casual business contacts.
The more successful search mode was by business name, but that also had limitations. For example, although Old Town Antiques (Marblehead, Mass.) was in the database, we were unable to find it by a name search. The site hopes to expand their search capabilities in later versions of the site.
This is the first in a two part series on Antiques America. Next week Antiques and The Arts Weekly will publish the concluding article that addresses the firm’s commercial section.
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