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What is a timed online auction?

A sale that takes place solely online rather than handled by a live auctioneer, taking place over an extended period of hours, days or weeks as opposed to happening in real time.

Stephan Ludwig, CEO of Forum Auctions describes timed online “as a natural progression” from live online bidding at traditional sales.

How does an online platform operate a timed sale?

Using thesaleroom.com as an example, timed sales are managed using the same auction management software as live sales. Marika Clemow, Auction Technology Group’s global director of product and operations, explains: “Within the ‘toolbox’ auctioneers can post their catalogues, commission marketing, set the auction time, automate payments and so on.

“The same bidder security and fraud checks are applied as live, though you can create different approval rules.”

If a sale is timed online only, how does the system decide when a sale ends?

“The auctioneer sets the time when the sale of each lot should end,” says Clemow, “using the technology platform to start a sale at, say, 6pm on day 1 to end on day 7 at 8pm.”

Can bidders be outbid in the last seconds?

The short answer is ‘no’. To give bidders a fair opportunity to compete until the hammer falls, online platforms such as thesaleroom.com use ‘anti-sniping’ extension times – for example, a bid submitted in the last two minutes before the original stated end time for that lot triggers an extension to the end of time of a further 10 minutes, the length being at the discretion of the auctioneer. “So, the auction ends when the bidding ends, as in a live auction,” Clemow says.

“At Forum, we use a 40-second countdown, which is a good identical experience to live,” says Ludwig. It’s a distinct difference to the eBay model where the clock will run out of time regardless of late bidding in the final few seconds.

Do timed auctions relax the rigours of live sales?

Many argue the core rules of auctioneering – great lots, realistic estimates, opportunity to preview, strong marketing, detailed descriptions and photography – are even more applicable to timed online and are paramount to their success.

“Bidders rely on photos and descriptions online to be confident in bidding – that the item they are seeing is what they get,” says Mark Falco at William George & Co, which runs timed-online sales on thesaleroom.com and its sister sites, i-bidder and bidspotter which specialise in industrial and commercial auctions.

“We need to make sure an object appears online as it does in real life.”

Are timed sales considered ‘public auctions’?

Timed auctions are deemed ‘public’ if bidders can view lots before a sale. “All our sales are public auctions,” says Noah Wunsch, SVP, global head of ecommerce at Sotheby’s.

“We do, and I want to make clear, have all property available for inspection at any time during the sale opening. And while we may not have an exhibition, if a client is interested in inspecting anything we’re selling, we give them the opportunity to make an appointment and view on the premises.”

Are there other benefits for the auctioneer?

The auction house will not incur the costs involved in having bidders on its premises. Nor will it need a live operator present for online bidding and it typically will not have an elaborate colour catalogue printed.

What is the optimum period to run a timed sale?

Auctions can be timed for one day or a fortnight. For timed auctions on thesaleroom.com, two weeks is the average. Sotheby’s, on the other hand, says its sales tend to be shorter, with two weeks for a new category “where we need to work hard to find the audience”.

When should the marketing of a timed sale start?

Clemow says thesaleroom.com “advises auctioneers to upload their catalogues two weeks before the end date of your sale, as that’s when we start marketing your sale and Google begins indexing your lot pages”.

A common marketing tactic in timed online is to link a sale to an event in the wider world. From June 29-July 15 this year, at the height of the UK polo season, sports memorabilia auctioneer Graham Budd will host a special online-only sale commemorating the 150th anniversary of the first polo game played in England.

Hertfordshire auction house Wyles Hardy will be holding its sale of Boris Becker’s sporting memorabilia starting on June 24 and closing on July 11 – perfectly timed to coincide with the Wimbledon tennis championships which begins on July 1.

As a vendor, I prefer live auctions. Why should I consign to timed online?

According to those auctioneers interviewed for this article, sell-through rates are climbing. “The data speaks for itself,” says Wunsch, adding that his firm’s consignors become comfortable with the format when shown evidence of its high average sell-through rates (82.5%).

Ludwig says that the absence of sale-day overheads means auction houses can accept lower-value items that they might otherwise be unwilling to include in a live sale.

What benefits do bidders get from timed sales?

“The key gain is accessibility,” says Clemow. The format does suit lower-value items. Charles Miller, for instance, is bringing a single-owner collection of ‘liner china’ to his first timed auction starting this week, giving bidders access to individual items that would be grouped together in a live sale. Estimates are as low as £20-30. Clemow adds that bidders can “shop when they want, quickly, on their mobile, without needing to phone or be in a certain place at a specific time”. On thesaleroom.com, instant email prompts alert bidders when they have been outbid.