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The Art of Auction Consignments

Although shopping at online auctions can be as simple as pressing a button, what goes on behind the scenes is a much more involved process. Auction houses rely on consignors to build their stock for sales, and finding and retaining sellers can be a difficult process – but it doesn’t have to be.


Image: Andrew Neel on Unsplash

More people are buying items at online auctions than ever before: the Hiscox Online Art Trade Report 2020 found that 55% of buyers purchased works through online auction platforms, up from 37% last year. Increased traffic on Barnebys reflected this, with 34% more visitors globally in 2020 than in 2019. Part of this is due to COVID-19 restrictions limiting in-person events, but many businesses believe that the switch to online platforms will be permanent. This push for online sales means that auction houses need to have an accessible platform and catalogue, and that they need a steady stream of consignors to supply items that keep their sales fresh and appealing.


Keith Haring, acrylic and gold paint marker on plexiglass. Photo © Palm Beach Modern Auctions via Barnebys Price Bank

Smaller auction houses have to compete with major players like Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Heritage Auctions for consignments, as they don’t necessarily have the same reputation or brand recognition. However, small and medium-sized auction houses are adept at managing estate sales as well as a range of mid-priced items, which is the largest and fastest-growing price segment at auction. Consignors trust auction houses to market and sell their item, and smaller businesses gain credibility through transparency, expertise and excellent customer service. Both consignors and buyers want to know that they’re being treated well and receiving (or paying) a fair price for an item that’s been evaluated correctly.


Eva Hild, ‘Complex B’, 2003, stoneware. Photo © Millea Bros via Barnebys Price Bank

Many peoples’ first interaction with an auction house will be through their online platform, and having an appealing and user-friendly website is a must. Potential consignors should be able to see if their piece is a good fit for the auction house, learn the company’s sales policies and see what kinds of valuation services they provide. Moving sales online means that an auction house can get consignors and buyers from all over, expanding their reach far beyond their immediate geographical area.


18th-century or earlier Georgian rose cut diamond cluster ring. Photo © Tremont Auctions via Barnebys Price Bank

Many auction houses outsource their selling to third-party auction platforms, which force them to give up their own branding and can be confusing for buyers to navigate. These sites are expensive to maintain, especially if an auction house uses multiple platforms, and this cost results in fees that are passed on to either the buyer or consignor. Maintaining close relationships with clients is integral for an auction house’s business, and third-party platforms can mine data on consignors and buyers that is invaluable for keeping in contact with potential and repeat clients.

Example of a live auction using Skeleton auction software. Photo: Skeleton

In 2019, Barnebys launched the auction sales platform Skeleton to help auction houses streamline the process of finding consignors, and listing, selling and shipping items. Skeleton allows auction houses to run sales on their own website without relying on multiple third-party platforms, saving money for both the auction house and its clients in the long-term. Businesses are also in complete control of their website design and branding, making them easily searchable and able to develop brand recognition on their own terms.


Circle of Jan Breughel, painting in gilt frame. Photo © Millea Bros via Barnebys Price Bank

Skeleton allows auction houses to own all their own data on consignors, bidders and past auction results, allowing them to grow their business, stay connected with their customer base and reach out to under-bidders. Keeping data consolidated with a single business benefits clients as well, since their personal information isn’t spread across multiple sites. Customers who buy at auctions also sell more at auction, and building and maintaining relationships with consignors and buyers through transparency, trustworthiness and positive user experiences is integral to auction houses’ business. The online auction market is poised to grow, and the sales process should be a straightforward and positive experience for consignors, auction houses and buyers alike.