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Founded by former Butterfield and Butterfield senior executive George Noceti, who developed the firm’s Internet strategy, Gavelnet.com, an independent organisation run by experts in the fine art and antiques market and backed by venture capital, is already attracting a significant audience through a prime time slot on a major US cable TV network five days a week.

Dealers are not expected to sign up to long-term exclusive contracts, as with other Internet auction houses such as Sotheby’s, and Gavelnet has struck a deal with Compaq which will allow dealers to hire all the computer equipment they need at preferential rates.

Michael Thomson-Glover, former chairman of Sotheby’s Sussex and now Vice President of Gavelnet.com in charge of European business development, has been sounding out dealers in the UK, France and Italy with a good deal of success. In the United States, the company has been conducting an extensive marketing campaign to build up awareness and a large customer base. As well as advertising in upmarket lifestyle magazines, it has bought up a five-minute slot, called Premier Collector, on the antiques programme Treasures In Your Home, a high ratings prime time TV show. In the slot, an expert comes on to talk about a specific area of art or antiques before inviting the audience to log on to Gavelnet’s website with a view to buying similar objects. After the first three weeks the site was registering 20,000 page hits a night.

Other incentives for dealers to try out the site include its simplicity. From the home page, the site is divided into three categories, fine arts, decorative arts and collectables. The categories will deal in higher value art, with a minimum value of £500 being put on fine art. There will be an additional feature called the Master Room, which dealers can use to display special items at a retail price. Access to this feature will only be granted to potential customers with a record of buying. High resolution images will represent each object in detail allowing close inspection of small details by the viewer without the image pixellating. In all this, all sales will be blind, with only Gavelnet knowing the identity of both buyer and dealer.

The company’s commission for buying and selling will be 10 per cent, which covers guarantee insurance. Each item is guaranteed up to a value of $1m in the event of non-payment by the client or damage to the object. The dealer only bears responsibility for supplying an accurate description. Gavelnet then runs a check on the content before putting it online.

Gavelnet has also been licensed to introduce a world network shipping programme. The software programme automatically identifies the quickest and most economically viable route for collection and delivery once an item has been purchased.

Niche sales are already planned for posters and jewellery and dealers started loading on items at the beginning of October. It is thought that the first sale will include 1500-2000 items.

The company expects to develop a market with prices ranging from £500 to £250,000 and will specifically be targeting younger age groups with high disposable incomes who want to buy art and antiques but do not have the time to attend sales.

In addition to continuous auctions (24 hours a day, seven days a week), where items may remain on site for a limited period, there will be live auctions, with potential buyers being able to bid live via the Internet.