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Sotheby's first eBay sale to offer artworks by Man Ray, Sinatra

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Sotheby's wants to expand auctions beyond the showroom to eBay's 155 million buyers worldwide. The New York-based auction house and the San Jose-based Internet marketplace announced the partnership in July as investors including hedge fund manager Dan Loeb pressured Sotheby's to improve performance.

[NEW YORK] Get ready to bid as much as US$600,000 for the old Yankee Stadium sign or US$15,000 for a painting by Frank Sinatra. But ditch the auction paddle. This sale is online.

Sotheby's and eBay will debut their partnership to offer live online auctions on April 1, starting with New York- themed prints, paintings and memorabilia, and photographs from the 19th century to the postwar era.

Sotheby's wants to expand auctions beyond the showroom to eBay's 155 million buyers worldwide. The New York-based auction house and the San Jose-based Internet marketplace announced the partnership in July as investors including hedge fund manager Dan Loeb pressured Sotheby's to improve performance.

"It's deliberately built in a way that should appeal to the new audience that Sotheby's doesn't speak to today," said Josh Pullan, Sotheby's director of e-commerce, referring to the 30-to-40-year-olds. "It's really vibrant and dynamic." Accelerating Sotheby's use of technology is among early items on the to-do list by the company's newly elected chief executive officer Tad Smith, he said in a conference call with investors on March 16.

A number of companies are trying to shake up the Internet art market as sales rise but profit remains elusive. Online art sales increased by 32 per cent to 3.3 billion euros (S$4.8 billion) in 2014 from 2.5 billion euros in the prior year, according to an annual report published March 11 by the European Fine Art Foundation.

The new platform, ebay.com/sothebys, will broadcast every auction at Sotheby's New York headquarters except for its big, semi-annual evening sales in May and November. The site goes live on March 17.

Visitors can scroll through upcoming events and review inventory, register in advance and participate live using a blue bid button. Live video of the auctioneer and images of the item being sold appear on the screen during an auction in an attempt to replicate the live auction experience online.

The sweet spot for both companies will be items valued at US$25,000 or less, Sotheby's said. The auction house will promote such artworks and collectibles with special editorial content, including videos, essays and interviews with collectors and taste makers. That type of promotional focus is typically reserved for top lots by the likes of Andy Warhol and Pablo Picasso.

A short video next to Sinatra's untitled 1985 geometric abstract painting tells the story of the singer's art hobby. Elsewhere, hip-hop artist Swizz Beatz and fashion designer Anna Sui talk about what they love about New York City.

The sign atop Yankee Stadium from 1976 until it closed in 2008 and the team moved into a new venue across the street, is composed of 13 separate 10-foot blue letters. It's being sold as a single lot by Hall of Fame outfielder Reggie Jackson, and Sotheby's has an estimate of US$300,000 to US$600,000.

Man Ray's 1934 photograph "Pont de la Concorde" is estimated at US$7,000 to US$10,000. Alfred Stieglitz's 1923 black- and-white "Song of the Sky and Trees" is expected to bring US$10,000 to US$15,000. EBay is looking to find new growth areas since its payments division PayPal will be spun off as a separate company in the second half of the year. EBay's marketplace revenue totaled US$8.8 billion in 2014, up 6.4 per cent from the previous year. That compares to 22 per cent growth for worldwide e-commerce.

Many of eBay's customers are interested in auctions and collectibles. In 2014, 36 million EBay shoppers spent almost US$8 billion on collectibles, according to the company.

EBay has hosted fine art and collectibles sales on its platform for about 200 houses, including Doyle New York, Swann Auction Galleries, Heritage Auctions and Freeman's. Sotheby's will become EBay's "anchor partner" in the art and collectibles section.

"This is the first live audio-video streaming on eBay, and we will open this feature up to other auction houses shortly," eBay spokesman Ryan Moore said.

Since starting live auctions in October, collectibles such as Elvis Presley's first record sold on EBay for US$300,000, said Devin Wenig, president of EBay marketplaces.

Online auctions have "opened the door for more people to appreciate and participate in bidding on exceptional works of art, antiques and collectibles," Wenig said in a statement.

Sotheby's said it had about 25 per cent more buyers online in 2014 compared with previous year. John James Audubon's "The Birds of America" sold in April 2014 for US$3.5 million, a record for an online purchase in a live auction at Sotheby's, the auction house said.

The two companies are also discussing online-only auctions, already offered by rival Christie's, and auctions from Sotheby's international branches.

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