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Ahead of the Curve: Navigating the Changing World of Online Auctions

With virtual auctions quickly becoming the new standard, fresh sales techniques and unique marketing approaches have developed at breakneck speed. Barnebys spoke to Pete Liggins and Aubrey Dawson of Dawsons Auctioneers to learn about their company as well as the key business strategies that set them apart in the online auction world.

Gaspar van Wittel (called Vanvitelli), ‘The Molo, Venice, looking West towards the entrance of the Grand Canal’, 1712, oil on canvas, 56.8 x 109.8 cm. Image © Christies

With locations in London and Berkshire, Dawsons is a leading auction house that has grown rapidly in the six years since it was founded. They keep busy: every month they hold one sale dedicated to fine arts and antiques and one dedicated to jewellery, watches and silver, with occasional specialist sales that have focused on everything from tribal art to motorcycles. Their goal is to create an approachable auction experience that is welcoming for seasoned and first-time buyers alike, and their varied price points, accessible website and premier service helps to create a wholly user-friendly experience.

1982 Rolex Oyster Perpetual Date Explorer II ref. 1655 stainless steel wristwatch, 38 mm case. Image © Dawsons Auctioneers

Although Dawsons began moving towards online sales over the past couple years, the COVID-19 pandemic was the catalyst for them to go completely online. Dawsons now streams their auctions virtually with great success, and they don’t plan to return to the traditional in-person auction format. They haven’t experienced any dropoff in business, and they have even attracted new online buyers who discovered the online auction world as an exciting and economical alternative to retail shopping.

“We’ve been seeing record bidder numbers, record prices, and we’ve achieved world records for particular items as well – there isn’t really any downside.”

Antonio Ermolao Paoletti (1834-1912), ‘Venetian Scene’, oil on canvas, 55 x 80 cm. Image © Dawsons Auctioneers

Because online sales are accessible worldwide, Dawsons has seen a huge change in the demographics of their buyers and sellers. Older collectors tend to gravitate towards art and antiquities, but Dawsons has drawn in younger buyers, a demographic that is notoriously difficult – and incredibly important – to attract. As a UK-based auction house, Dawsons has always had a very strong buyer and seller base within the UK. However, since they have switched to online auctions and began targeted marketing campaigns with Barnebys, Dawsons now receives bids from buyers in over 100 countries, and it is not uncommon for a sale to be 40-50% outside of the UK.

One particularly notable sale at Dawsons was a 1912 Moorcroft tea set that broke the world record when it sold for £15,400 in September 2020, after enthusiastic collectors from all over the world tuned in to bid on the lot. Dawsons uses several auction platforms as well as their own website and social media channels, but they credit much of this new global reach to the specialised marketing campaigns they did with Barnebys.

Over the last nine months, Barnebys and Dawsons developed campaigns to reach buyers in the United States and world-wide, while also placing a new focus on direct marketing. With this personalised approach, they can reach customers who may have bid or bought something in the past, in order to let them know about upcoming items in which they may be interested.

18ct white gold, diamond, and ruby ring centred with a mixed oval-cut ruby of approximately 1.86 carats, flanked with two round brilliant-cut diamonds of approximately 1.08 carats combined. Image © Dawsons Auctioneers

“The biggest difference between Barnebys and other platforms is the customer service we’ve had: it’s been fantastic. Our account manager does actually listen to what we want to achieve, and tries to craft a campaign around that particular objective. Most businesses that I’ve dealt with – and I’ve been in marketing and sales my whole career – will profess to be able to do that, but they don’t deliver.”

Dawsons appreciates Barnebys’ flexibility and tailored approach, because as a young, growing business they like to move faster than a traditional auction house. They realise that auction houses are threatened by sophisticated online retail platforms, where buyers can select an item at the click of a button and it’ll turn up on their doorstep a day later. To compete, Dawsons provides a premium level of service for clients and takes care to provide high-quality photographs, detailed descriptions, complete condition reports and expert evaluation services.

Dorothea Landau Da Fano (1881-1941), ‘The Secret’, Pre-Raphaelite, oil on canvas, 30 x 19.5 cm. Image © Dawsons Auctioneers

Dawsons sees the online shift as an opportunity rather than a setback, and have reevaluated their business model to ensure that their auction process is as straightforward and accessible to new buyers as possible. They make their live-streamed auctions enjoyable and engaging by bringing in different auctioneers during the sale, and they approach it as a sort of televised experience. After their years of successful sales, Dawsons has big plans to expand their operation and they are poised for dramatic growth in the competitive online auction world.


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