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The New Auction Fever

March 2016
What's missing here? Part of Eric Pickersgill's "Removed" photographic project. Courtesy of removed.social.

What’s missing here? Part of Eric Pickersgill’s “Removed” photographic project. Courtesy of removed.social.

Eric Pickersgill’s photographic project called Removed poses people with hand-held devices and then takes the devices out of the picture, leaving the subjects empty-handed in all those familiar positions – texting, taking selfies, etc. It seems pretty obvious that he’s satirizing the technological version of the “phantom limb” syndrome.

But there’s something more, a metaphor for how all human invention is ultimately disconnecting (the 21st Century euphemism is “disrupting”) by making all of us Emperors with new clothes.

Advertisers (going back 5,000 years) insist that new and improved stuff is supposed to lead us to new and improved lives. Evidence can support this theory, but it can just as easily reveal how we are often frog-marched in a way that makes us ignore whether new actually means improved.

Technology is mostly about efficiency (profitability) aimed at a species of creatures who are anything but efficient. Most humans don’t particularly want to be efficient and don’t have much fun when they’re made to be.

Pickersgill’s photos reveal how we’re being bamboozled by technology. Another example of disconnection is Youtube, never-ending moments of distraction that increasingly keep us from real interactions with others. Yet another example is the world of second-hand goods being exchanged face to face in community marketplaces where competition and negotiation play amiably beside needs and desires: at auctions, yard sales or flea markets.

Holding an antique wooden carving in your hands or sliding a vintage silver ring onto your finger can be so contextual, so connecting to the item as to be sensual. In a virtual world these bits of human bliss are rarely present. Context is completely inefficient from a business point of view, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the auction industry.

Even two years ago (in Canada) online bidding was just an accessory for live auctions, a tool for those who knew what they wanted but couldn’t make it down to the bidders’ den. Today most auction houses are moving some, if not all, of their events completely online. This may be inevitable because of how our technological society is evolving. It may not even be a bad thing, although it seems to have the same isolating effect as Youtube.

When I’ve asked Ottawa’s auction houses about this, the most consistent theme is their responsibility to the seller, the client, to get the best return possible, and online is now where it’s at. If auctioning naked could boost prices, no doubt auctioneers would do that too.

The selfie from 7,000 feet. Pilot and Maxsold partner Sushee Perumal can't resist the technological buzz of taking a photo of himself and partner Barry Gordon while in the air. Photo by Sushee Perumal.

The selfie from 7,000 feet. Pilot and Maxsold partner Sushee Perumal can’t resist the technological buzz of taking a photo of himself and partner Barry Gordon while in the air. Photo by Sushee Perumal.

“Ebay was the first explosion where you could see people getting comfortable with online solutions,” says Barry Gordon, head of Maxsold. “Costs are lower and you can do it from anywhere. Basically you can say ‘yes’ to (anyone selling anything) and not just chase the shiny objects, the expensive stuff, that everyone else is chasing. There are fewer and fewer shiny things and more and more stuff to be sold.”

It doesn’t seem to matter that buyers can’t see and touch the items before they buy. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun, especially when Maxsold’s actual auction sequence is like a pachinko machine with as many as a dozen items in bidding countdown at any given moment. Online can also be done from the germ-free isolation of your own couch. This is the new auction fever.

Gordon tells about a female lawyer who can argue a case in front of court but would never want to stick up her hand in the middle of an auction crowd and yell “Yes!” It also means that this lawyer could be anywhere in the world. So the Gordon family’s Kingston-based estate-auction business of 25 years ago that would bring out 100 or 200 potential buyers, today, in the company’s Maxsold online incarnation, gets 10 or 100 times as many.

Gordon’s creature held its first online auction in 2010 (then called YouBidLocal) and has grown at least 65 percent annually ever since. Partnering since 2009 with Sushee Perumal – corporate strategist and a Queen’s University MBA with a commercial pilot’s licence – has pushed Maxsold from a few auctions in Kingston and along Highway 401 to dozens from the East Coast to West Coast in both Canada and the United States.

Other local companies are getting dragged along: MacLean and Associates, Spooner Auctions, even the high-end Walker’s Fine Art & Estate Auctions have started online-only events. The results so far are mixed, but not for Maxsold, which auctions everything from garden hoses to cars – saying “yes” to everyone.

There is a kind-of wistfulness in Gordon’s voice when he talks about moving from the traditional empathy of family auctions to the shiny-ness of an international brand, and there is risk in the trade-offs demanded by “Going big or going home.” But this is the new path he’s chosen, and he’s convinced that “volume now beats personality” (the vocal cadence of an auctioneer in front of a crowd trying to coax out those last few dollars).

Perhaps he’s right. We are moving away from communal environments to electronic silos so quickly that most people don’t ever ask themselves how they feel about it. Maxsold’s auction-sales records are the only thing people want to know about.

This success is playing a significant role in reshaping the North American auction industry. Technology is pushing it, and a playing field gets more level as selection increases and prices drop. If it continues, the words “fair warning” will soon go the way of “check your oil, sir?”

Robin Pridham and partner Josee have just opened a new live-auction hall in Vankleek Hill, but that doesn't mean they aren't putting some of Pridham's Auctions events only online. Courtesy of thereview.ca

Robin Pridham and partner Josee have just opened a new live-auction hall in Vankleek Hill, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t putting some of Pridham’s Auctions events only online. Courtesy of thereview.ca

Out in Vankleek Hill, Robin Pridham is not really sure what to think. He’s been in antiques for 30 years and has just gone full-time into auctions. “People are becoming successful doing online only, and I want to make money too. I’m not real happy about (the move to online only) but I have to follow because that’s the way this business is going, looking for that worldwide customer base,” he says. His first online-only event will focus on art.

Yet he’s not willing, unlike Gordon, to jump in feet first because he’s also just opened a bricks-and-mortar auction hall. He told me that having a physical structure is about credibility, personal experience and a belief that the Internet can never replicate the deep, visceral joy of falling in love with something in front of you. Pridham feels he knows what people want, but it looks like technology is shunting those lizard-brain decisions in a different direction.

We seem mesmerized by the shiny new auction style. It lights up the part of human nature that allows us to believe that new things will always improve lives because it’s all about my experience, my tastes, my judgement.

This logic is efficient, for sellers anyway. But when we step back from the frog-march of technological improvement and really think about value, where do we get our greatest benefit, from humans or from algorithms?

4 Comments »

  • Von Allan said:

    Good piece, Mike. I think the only thing I’d add is that online auctions do have one key advantage, at least for me: privacy and anonymity. This popped into my head just as I started reading, but especially when I read this part:

    Gordon tells about a female lawyer who can argue a case in front of court but would never want to stick up her hand in the middle of an auction crowd and yell “Yes!”

    I think this is important. The situation Gordon describes with the lawyer is not one I’d like to find myself in. Ever. I’d much rather do my buying privately.

    That isn’t to say I’m against being able to examine the item I want personally. There is something to the tactile (though I’d gently argue that the “deep, visceral joy” might be too general a statement. Who hasn’t suffered buyer’s remorse even for “things” one fell in love with?). But to touch, hold, examine said item and then have to immediately compete with 2, 5, 20+ other people who also want it? Right now? No thank you. Or having to haggle* with an owner-operator? No thank you.

    In my specific case, I also don’t buy things that are extremely rare or bespoke. Way (way!) outside my price range. From that point of view, online works well for me: I can price compare in a way I never could offline.

    *which reminds me of one story: years ago, back around ’92 or so, I found a copy of a rare comic that I had been looking for. Cover price was $1.95 US and it was going for around $40.00 CDN. Way outside my price range, but I asked to look at it. And yup, it was nice to hold it. Guy behind the counter asked me if I was going to buy it. I said a polite ‘nope,’ and the guy smirked as he re-priced it up to around $65.00 CDN. Nice, huh?

  • MLevin (author) said:

    Von. I really do get the privacy thing, and I have to admit I prefer the at-home bidding because I’m way too competitive for face-to-face. But I’m a dinosaur. Price comparing is never going to be an issue. Go to auction and you’ll see at least half the people of their devices doing those comparisons. As always, I’m not really saying one side or the other is better but simply asking people to figure out how they really feel about an issue, a scenario, whatever. I wonder why that guy repriced the comic you spoke about just because you showed interest in it?

  • Von Allan said:

    Gotcha.

    In terms of the comic, I have a possible answer: my interest in the comic led him to re-evaluate the price. The comic (this one: http://www.comics.org/issue/51192/) was very hot at the time and he probably felt that it was under-priced. Comics have long had a certain “hustle” mentality and the industry, in the early 90s, was really sparking. For all kinds of reasons, most of which evaporated by the mid-90s, leading to a crash (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/UsefulNotes/TheGreatComicsCrashOf1996)

    Still a bit of a dick move to do it right in front of me (“shoulda bought it, kid”).

    I did eventually snag a copy. I found it a few years ago for way cheaper.

  • MLevin (author) said:

    Yup, sounds like a dick to me.

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