Cinematic auctioneer de Pury bids for online comeback

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By Farah Nayeri

LONDON (Reuters) - Simon de Pury, the Swiss auctioneer whose showmanship has landed him film and television roles, is hoping his exuberant personality will help him succeed where others have failed -- in the online auction world.

De Pury, who was chairman and chief auctioneer of Phillips de Pury & Company until late 2012, is setting up a digital auction business with his name as the brand.

His partners are Mallett, the 150-year-old antique dealership, and venture capitalist Klaus Hommels, an investor in the music-streaming company Spotify.

Together, they will stage auctions mainly online, though buyers can also bid in Mallett's saleroom in Mayfair, London, where De Pury will lead the action.

"I've always been fascinated by what is happening on the Internet side in the art market, and I really feel that this is the next frontier," de Pury said. "If you take the price segment of between $10,000 and $2 million, that is a segment to which the Internet lends itself ideally."

De Pury has appeared on the U.S. satirical TV show "The Colbert Report", and was an auctioneer in the 2006 French movie “Avenue Montaigne”.


Digital sales are nothing new. Online bidders competed for 17 percent of the lots offered by Sotheby’s Holdings Inc. in 2013, and there were nearly 25 percent more online bidders in 2014. The difference is that de Pury’s venture expects to do most of its selling online, a space that carries risks.

"Lots of people have got into online sales and failed," said Anthony McNerney, director of contemporary art at the London art valuation and advisory firm Gurr Johns Ltd.

McNerney noted that Sotheby's own joint venture with eBay in 2002 ended a year later when Sotheby's said there weren't enough buyers of fine art online. Sotheby's is giving it another shot: It announced in March that it would be streaming a number of its New York day sales live via the eBay website.

McNerney said de Pury may fare better because so far, online auctions have been “all virtual” and “soulless,” and his saleroom presence could deliver the “electricity” to spur bidding.

The first sale in October will feature about 400 pieces from Belgium's Lambert Art Collection (named after a banking family related to the Rothschilds) - everything from an 18th-century French writing table and a 1950s Fiat Topolino car to Japanese screens and paintings priced as high as 3 million pounds by U.S. artist Christopher Wool.

(Editing by Michael Roddy)

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