News that the fine art auctioneer has disbanded its Internet unit prompted industry watchers to speculate that the company has given up the online race against traditional rival Sotheby's and new buck eBay.
Andree Corroon, head of public relations at Christie's, said that the company had created an Internet unit which was not a separate business, but a research unit to investigate the best way to embark on an online auction venture.
"We are wholeheartedly embracing the Internet, but are taking a different route than Sotheby's and Amazon.com," said Corroon.
Last June Sotheby's announced it was investing $45 million in a 10-year deal to launch a joint site for antique lovers, in addition to selling traditional fine art items.
Christie's says it plans to expand its existing site, www.christie's.com, to integrate all of its "ecommerce, strategic e-marketing and online sales into the company's traditional auction business."
Corroon said that Christie's looked at the different strategies available and chose the one that would allow the authentication of items to be wholly controlled by the company.
"The priority is to protect our core values," said Corroon. "Our core business is the high end of the market. Christie's will hold Internet auctions of items we sell now, but only those authenticated by Christie's experts."
Christie's says that by the first half of 2000 it will have a fully featured site offering live webcasts of each of its real-life auctions, enabling customers to bid for items via the existing site.
Consumers will be able to search for items online by price, item or period, and the site will also feature virtual reality tours of exhibitions, sub-sites for each department and online chat rooms with specialists. In addition, Christie's will hold dedicated online auctions of select items.
The news comes just a few weeks after jeans giant Levi-Strauss pulled the plug on its direct Web sales, saying it preferred to focus its resources on its retail strategy. Some analysts believe this could result in more traditional manufacturers reviewing ecommerce potential.
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