Published: November 28, 2006
A painting offered at Trinity Fine Arts’ auction of important American, Russian and European art on October 21 attracted spirited floor bidding and sold for $750. That would have been fine, said Steve Gass, the auction house’s co-owner, his voice inflecting no small amount of irony, except that the consignor learned afterward that there had been two absentee bids on the painting left with eBay Live starting at around $2,000.
Money on the table and the characteristic shrug from eBay were among the simmering detritus at 30 or more auction houses around the world in the wake of an eBay Live computer system crash that lasted for four hours on October 21. The “glitch” disrupted sales, enraged and frustrated online bidders and underlined for auctioneers once again that doing business with the San Jose, Calif.-based juggernaut is a double-edged sword at best.
“What’s really awful about all of this is that the word ‘contrition’ does not seem to be in their vocabulary,” complained Gass. Other than offering a slight consideration in cataloging fees, he said, eBay did not make any meaningful restitution. In addition to Trinity, many other important auctioneers were affected, including Philip Weiss in Oceanside, N.Y., Ed Nadeau in Windsor, Conn., and David Rago in Lambertville, N.J.
“Overall, we still did quite well, more than $1 million in sales, but it could have been much stronger,” said Gass, who added that Trinity is among the few auction houses that deal fluently with an international clientele. “Our European clients are in many cases more comfortable with online technology, but in this case they were frozen out of the bidding.”
“We did have an outage on the Live Auction service. There were some unanticipated server issues that basically disrupted service,” said Catherine England, an eBay spokeswoman. “My understanding is that our team was able to identify what the issue was and get it rectified so this particular issue isn’t going to cause disruptions moving forward.”
As for communicating with the affected auction houses, England added, “Our Live Auction team started reaching out to folks that were impacted by the disruptions as soon as they got the situation rectified, primarily to apologize for the inconvenience. And they are looking at situations on a case by case basis for the auction houses and when appropriate refunding related catalog fees.”
Weiss, whose two-day “Signature” sale was chockablock with comic book art, dolls and sports memorabilia, recounted how he had waited for more than two hours for eBay Live to come back online, even ordering in food for the in-house bidders while trying to deal with “clueless” technical representatives at eBay.
All the while Weiss and his staff were being assaulted by emails and phone calls from frustrated would-be bidders who were frozen out of the bidding because they could not access eBay. For Weiss, this created a customer relations dilemma that he said he felt powerless to overcome. “What they [at eBay] don’t seem to acknowledge is that these are my customers. And yet they don’t provide a means for me to contact the bidders directly.”
Ed Nadeau was conducting his important fall estates auction and had not gone too long into the sale when eBay crashed. “It affected our sale somewhat in that some of the smaller items might have attracted higher bids. As for restitution, there was very little considering it takes probably between 150 and 250 man-hours to put these things together for eBay, to get the pictures and descriptions together, answer customer questions and so on.”
David Rago said that about 50 of the 500 lots he had across the block were listed with eBay Live, and although the outrage did not affect high-end sales, it “created a lot of aggravation.” His take on the situation was tempered by healthy skepticism toward the concept of technological perfection. “Anytime any auctioneer agrees to sign up with an online platform like eBay, he needs to recognize and accept responsibility for the fact that the system will regularly experience problems. It’s not realistic to expect otherwise.”
Bob Schmitt at R.O Schmitt Fine Arts, Windham, N.H., conducted a flawless auction of antique clocks in Manchester, N.H., on October 21 and 22. “I knew my bidders were going to be happy,” recalled Schmitt because, as his advertising clearly noted, there was ‘”NO live Internet bidding.’ I like the Internet,” said Schmitt, “I even tried to add live online bidding in the late 1980s, but my customers were unhappy.”
Auctioneers who do avail themselves of the platform said they appreciate the greater reach and co-branding benefit that eBay Live affords when all works as advertised. And, as businessmen, they can appreciate why the online giant is proprietary about the contact information of potential bidders who number into the thousands. What many object to is the feeling of being held hostage to an organization that seems at once impenetrable and unaccountable. “You’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t,” said Trinity’s Gass of dealing with eBay. He said Trinity will host another auction on November 30. “We will run it, and offer the lots that did not sell [in the October 21 auction].”
Nadeau, too, said he plans to continue using eBay Live. “They supposedly have corrected the problem. There were 31 auctions taking place at the same time, which they said is what caused the system to crash. Now they have upgraded it to handle up to 100 auctions, so we’ll work with it. But I tell people nothing is more foolproof than standing in the room while the auction’s being conducted.”
At the very least, potential online bidders may want to hedge their bets by phoning in or placing an absentee bid. In the computer world, having backup is a concept that everyone can understand.
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