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The headline move to kick-start what remains an embryonic digital sale programme accompanied an announcement of subtle changes in buyer’s premium thresholds that make purchasing at catalogued sales more expensive.

Company president Tad S.mith said the online marketplace “demands a different approach to pricing”. He described it as “a related, yet distinct business opportunity for Sotheby’s beyond our live auctions – one with a different competitive landscape and reduced traditional expenses”.

Sotheby’s held just 16 online-only sales last year but expects to double the number in 2017, with forthcoming auctions in contemporary art, film posters and Old Masters accompanying typical online fare such as watches and handbags. The average price of a lot sold in a Sotheby’s online-only sale has risen to nearly $10,000 and the firm describes them as “our best tool for attracting first-time buyers”.

Bigger strides

Sotheby’s main rival, Christie’s, has made bigger strides in hosting online-only sales. With the closure of the South Kensington rooms, it will offer more material via this channel charging its standard rates of buyer’s premium.

Christie’s recently issued statistics relating to its online-only operation stating the 35 sales in the first half of the year had been responsible for attracting 29% of new buyers.

Christie’s and Phillips both declined to comment on Sotheby’s move to drop the charges.

The change to zero premium will take effect from Sotheby’s contemporary art online sale on September 16.

Smith said he expects the change will “simplify the auction process for buyers and enable us to reach an even larger audience of participants. As a result, we will achieve higher prices and greater returns for our online-only sellers. We will continue to charge a vendor’s commission for that service.”

The firm has also updated its live auction fees across the board – putting clear air between Sotheby’s and its rivals in terms of premium thresholds.

Additional reporting: Noelle McElhatton and Laura Chesters.

Reaction to Sotheby’s online-only changes


Stephan Ludwig, CEO of Forum Auctions.

“It’s a really positive development for the auction industry in making the affordable end of the market appeal to a broader range of consumers.”

Stephan Ludwig, CEO, Forum Auctions


Kerry Shrives, senior VP, director of information & technology at Skinner Inc.

“Skinner has run online-only auctions since 2011. We find the convenience of ‘always open’ and accessible price-points are strong lures for first-time buyers.”

Kerry Shrives, senior VP, director of information & technology, Skinner Inc


Ian Cadzow, managing director of Roseberys Auctioneers.

“With a move like this, what you lose in commissions you’ll gain in consignments and make some good publicity along the way.”

Ian Cadzow, managing director, Roseberys Auctioneers

London Buyer's Premiums:


25% – up to £180,000

20% – from £180,000 up to £2m

12.9% – thereafter


25% – up to £100,000

20% – from £100,000 up to £2m

12% – thereafter

*Rates apply across all collecting categories except wine.