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Enquiries by the Antiques Trade Gazette reveal, however, that while British and international art trade associations are not in direct negotiation with ebay, London art dealer Peter Nahum has been attempting to broker a deal between ebay and the trade.

Mr Nahum confirmed to the Antiques Trade Gazette that over the past three months he has been trying to “put together a joint venture with the top of the world trade and a provider” to give a fairer amount of equity to the trade than is currently being offered by the salerooms and the other major online concerns – a venture in which the trade and the provider would share the profits. But he stressed that: “Everything I have done, and am doing, is with full disclosure as I do not represent and am not authorised to represent the trade associations of the world.”

LAPADA chief executive Malcolm Hord confirmed that he was aware of Mr Nahum’s initiative but stressed that LAPADA was keeping its options open where the Internet is concerned, although he reiterated his belief that the British trade associations would benefit from a joint presence on the Web. He acknowledged, however, that to have a realistic chance of competing in the developing online climate such a venture would require the sort of substantial capital outlay which only the heavily financed Internet companies seem able to bring to the table.

Ebay may be the leading online auctioneer in financial terms but it is by no means the only kid on the block. ArtNet Chief Executive Hans Neuendorf revealed that he too had been approached by Mr Nahum although nothing substantive emerged from their talks. ArtNet has always seen itself as a dealers’ platform and has been the first of the bigger Internet companies to hold sales of blue-chip art, recently selling a Lucio Fontana for $168,000 in one of its online auctions.

This week Peter Nahum flies to San Francisco to continue his discussions with the world’s biggest online auction house. “I don’t see ebay as auctioneers,” he said. “I see them as a point of sale.”