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Art auctions go online in bid to drum up business

High-end art auction houses are turning to online solutions in a bid to expand their customer base and increase sales.

Traditionally, collectors of art with a million-dollar price tag have had to bid in person or over a telephone at auctions. But art auctioneers such as Doyle and Sotheby's are responding to the e-commerce trend by using platforms such as eBay and Artsy to allow collectors to make bids remotely -- including on their smartphones.

Sotheby's is currently holding a week-long, online-only auction to sell 23 pieces of contemporary artwork through Artsy, an online art gallery and auction platform.

In November, Doyle will hold an auction of Impressionist and modern art pieces (including a work by Daniel Ridgway Knight valued between $80,000 to $120,000) which will include online bidding using the website Invaluable.

A woman bids at auction.
Getty Images
A woman bids at auction.

"(Online auctions) take place simultaneously with a live stream that connects the bidder to the auction floor, as if they were attending in person," Natalie Townsend, a spokesperson for Invaluable, explained to CNBC in an email. "The tech behind it is very precise, as you can imagine there can be no time lapses when it comes to bidding on high ticket items, and features a comprehensive bidding dashboard to give the auctioneer instant visibility on bid updates from mobile bidders."

Invaluable attempts to recreate the experience of auctioning in person by providing high-quality video of the auctioneer and showing bids being placed in real-time.

"Online bidding should be more than just typing in a bid, it should still provide the bidder with the excitement of participating in an auction," Invaluable's CEO Rob Weisberg told CNBC in an email. "Technology that disregards the live, face-to-face bidding experience will never survive because the thrill of the competition and the excitement of the saleroom floor is what keeps bidding enthusiasm alive."

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Online auctioning can be more convenient for collectors, but it also holds significant financial benefits to auction houses.

"There are many benefits that online bidding offers to auction houses, including driving increased participation, expanding the reach of auctions globally and driving higher bid values," added Weisberg.

For instance, between March and August of 2015, Sotheby's made 113 sales which included online bidding using Invaluable's technology. The number of people bidding online increased by 55 percent on the year before, which also lead to a 35 percent rise in the value of successful bids.

"Over the course of 113 sales, we have seen rapidly increasing engagement translating into significant growth and new auction records," said David Goodman, Sotheby's chief digital officer, in a press release.

And the people bidding online are serious collectors. The top 10 online sales at Sotheby's between March and August using Invaluable's bidding platform totalled to nearly $14.7 million.

Invaluable, whose online marketplace holds over 14,000 auctions annually, claims the number of auction houses using its technology increased by 50 percent in the second quarter and around 180 new auction houses have joined its marketplace since April. This indicated that more and more auction houses are likely to integrate online bidding in the future.

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