For Witherell's auction house in midtown Sacramento, the Internet has opened up a whole new world.
Brian Witherell said online auctions have enabled his house at 20th and C streets, along with other relatively small operators, to draw the attention of bidders all over the map.
Their quest to reach a larger audience is one of the factors that propelled online auctioneering into a multibillion-dollar business over the past 20 years. Witherell's, a family-run company dating back to 1969, shifted its auctions entirely to online in 2002.
"Online has changed everything, not only for clients but for research and (determining) value," said Witherell, whose firm offers both auctions and appraisals. "It's allowed more people to become involved, no matter where they live."
At Witherell's spring online auction in May, the firm expected to raise $200,000, but came away with $325,000.
A Maynard Dixon painting titled "Guard of the Cornfields" went for $69,000, or nearly 40 percent more than expected; a stained-glass Tiffany "Daffodil" table lamp fetched a hefty $35,460, and a Louis Vuitton trunk found in a basement sold for nearly $5,000.
Witherell's typically features fine art, antiques and other objects of value, but it has appraised and auctioned off items of all stripes over the years. The boutique firm occupies a tiny slice in a massive national and international online auctions pie, a market that includes everything from eBay to auto auctions to super-high-end players like Sotheby's.
While eBay is the industry giant with millions of buyers and sellers, smaller auction houses like Witherell's are becoming increasingly popular, touting deep expertise in art, antiques and older items. After all, you wouldn't want to sell great-grandma's brooch online for 50 bucks, when it might actually be worth $5,000.
Online auction sites sport names like WebStore, WeBidz, uBid, CQout and OZtion, which says "it's Aussie for auction."
Within the industry, there are subsegments some auctions accept online bids at a live auction site with on-site bidders but true online auctions are just that: only online bids are accepted for a specific period of time.
Industry trackers estimate current annual online auctions revenue at somewhere north of $25 billion, or about five times what it was just 10 years ago.
Some analysts say they think the $25 billion number might be conservative, given the myriad kinds of online auctions held in the United States each year. San Jose-based eBay Inc. alone reported revenue of $14 billion in 2012.
"I don't think anyone has a handle on the true value of online auctions," said Peter Schaub, a marketing and branding expert in New York. "The industry has grown so quickly, and how do you separate out live auctions that have online bidders?
"It could be worth billions more than current estimates."
Witherell said his business has been growing 25 percent annually for four years running. In the industry, he's well-known. He has been one of the featured appraisers on PBS' "Antiques Roadshow" for years.
Witherell said online auctions have been on a very fast track in the United States due to a combination of generational changes and technology advances.
"We've seen an increasing number of aging baby boomers involved," he said. "Tastes change, and fewer people are interested in keeping the sterling silver flatware or the furniture that's been in the family for generations."
Witherell's is among a group of companies that sell online through New York-based iGavel Auctions (www.igavelauctions. com), a $25 million-a-year enterprise.
iGavel offers a platform for independent auction firms to host auctions. Specializing in fine arts, antiques and collectibles, iGavel promotes sales via social media, collectors forums and other links. Lark Mason Jr., president of iGavel, said the wildfire growth of online auction technology driven in part by giant-volume enterprises like eBay has made it possible for a "small auction house to remotely reach a large audience. Because of that, this dramatically increased competition for consignments."
Witherell said his auctions typically draw bids from as far away as Florida, New York, New Mexico and Massachusetts.
Witherell's handles many estate items and currently conducts four online auctions annually spring, summer, winter and fall. Witherell said the company is considering adding more in the future.
Each auction lasts two weeks; the next is set for Aug. 6-20. Lots can be seen online and on-site. Commissions vary, based on the number of lots and the nature of the items up for bids, but 10 percent is the general standard.
Witherell says a good auctioneer-appraiser typically has an eye for detail, a strong grasp of U.S. and world history and a quick head for numbers.
Not surprisingly, he's handled clients who had some eye-popping items.
That includes a seller of White House china stretching from the administrations of former presidents Abraham Lincoln to Woodrow Wilson. And he once encountered a client with "suitcases" full of old coins.
A future auction item is a chair that once graced George Washington's Mount Vernon home in Virginia.
Asked why a prospective seller should choose his company over eBay, he smiled and said: "I would say we're efficient in determining value. You don't want to make mistakes sell something for far less because you didn't know its value.
"People might say they know it all in this business. But believe me, you don't know it all in this business You have to work at it."
CHOOSING AN ONLINE AUCTION SITE
TopTenReviews, part of the TechMediaNetwork, evaluates online bidding sites. Here are some of the things it looks for:
Site should disclose all information about items and the auction, including pictures, descriptions, bid history and information about the seller.
Some online auction services charge registration fees, listing fees and/or final value fees. Ideally, sellers hope to pay no listing fees, but sometimes a few extra dollars in fees goes a long way in selling potential.
Sellers should have a large amount of control over their items, including the opportunity to block bidders, to choose their own listing and category and to disclose all information about the item in the details page. The auction site should also provide tools to assist in listing and selling products as well as managing personal product inventory. This may include features like editing images, adding item descriptions and canceling bids.
Finding what you're looking for should be fun and easy. Online auction sites should provide resources and tools to help users find and bid with confidence. The auction site should also provide helpful information about the products and help the bidders feel safe.
Sellers should have control over their auctions, and bidders should have assurance that they are buying from a reputable source. Most online auction sites utilize a feedback system, where sellers and buyers can rate each other based on transaction experiences. Checking out a user's feedback helps potential bidders and sellers evaluate other members' reputation and credibility.
For more information, see www.online-auction-sites.toptenreviews.com
Call The Bee's Mark Glover, (916) 321-1184.