Interview with Rob Weisberg, CEO of Invaluable

Rob Weisberg is the CEO of Invaluable, the world’s leading marketplace for buying fine art, antiques and collectibles. Invaluable works with more than 4,000 auction houses, dealers and galleries using in-house bidding technology selling everything from fine art to classic cars. Weisberg has worked at Invaluable for over 6 years and became Chief Executive Officer in 2013.

Hi Rob, thank you very much for agreeing to talk with us.


Prior to being appointed CEO at Invaluable you were Vice President of Multimedia Marketing at Domino’s and then Chief Marketing Officer at Zipcar. Did you have any auction experience beforehand?

No, not at all. But I always fascinated by auctions and watching them from the outside, I felt that the auction business would benefit from the kinds of online innovations that were taking place in so many other industries, like the pizza business, where I rolled out online ordering at Domino’s. I just felt like the time was perfect to build the technology and marketplace to grow the online art and auction market.


Can you talk us through the online auction experience at Invaluable and how it works (step-by-step)?

For buyers, we created a process that surfaces fine art, antiques and collectibles they may be passionate about in advance of the auction. In addition to using machine learning to help showcase these items for our users, we also allow users to set up keyword, artists, and category alerts in order to quickly locate new items that may be of interest.  From there, we have a frictionless process to register to bid (by providing certain information to be vetted by the auction house). Bidders then can leave absentee bids which will be protected and executed by our technology in real time as the lot is opened and bid on. Most of our savvy buyers will watch/listen to the auction via our website in real time and bid online as if they were sitting in the auction room. With our patented technology, bids are submitted from around the world at the speed of light – meaning your bid goes in as quickly as someone raising a paddle in the auction room.

On the seller side we provide an interface for auction houses and galleries to quickly upload their catalogs to Invaluable.

From there, our services align lots to bidders across thousands of categories and keywords. On auction day, a clerk manages the online bidding activity just as they would a phone bidder, relaying the increment in real time through our technology and accepting the bids from an online live or online absentee bidders. For the auction house, it’s business as usual on auction day – the major benefit is they are opening that sale up to millions of potential bidders worldwide on the Invaluable marketplace.


How do auction houses join? Is there a membership fee?

We’ve made it very easy to join the Invaluable marketplace. Here’s how it works: Invaluable charges a listing fee to post an upcoming auction to our marketplace, which can vary depending on the frequency and volume of sales an auction house has in a year. On average, our clients pay $500 per sale – significantly less than a print advertisement – to expose their auction catalogue to our database of millions of global buyers. It is like the auction house is placing a two-page/full color advertisement in every trade publication and local newspaper around the world. If an Invaluable collector is the successful bidder, the auction house pays a commission (based on hammer price and as low as 1%) to Invaluable for that buyer winning through our technology. What should also be noted is that on any given lot, Invaluable bidders will participate, pushing up average hammer prices and reducing unsold lots. If Invaluable customers do not win the lot, but their bids pushed up the final price through the extra competition, the auction house does not pay anything for that underbidding demand.


How easy it is to “embed” your plugin into their website?

We ‘white label’ our technology for over 400 auction houses around the world, including Sotheby’s.  We make it very easy and can have most houses up and running in a day.


What are the current challenges you face within your sector?

Higher commission is the number one barrier to online bidding. Invaluable is leading the industry by eliminating the incremental 5% fee online buyers pay in favor of tiered commission for houses that implement pricing parity for floor, phone, absentee and online bidders. This voluntary program enables our auction house partners to efficiently grow their online channel, which is capable of scaling faster and at lower cost than phone or floor bidding. We’re promoting this by clearly indicating on Invaluable which houses are participating.

As an industry, we also need to focus on things that will increase buyer confidence. One major step Invaluable has taken is to partner with Artmyn, a Swiss company that is revolutionizing how art is viewed, bought & sold and protected. We’re offering 5D scanning of artwork, which produced incredible immersive videos of the artwork and a Biometric Passport that remains with the piece over its lifetime – basically, a digital fingerprint – that all but eliminates forgery of that piece. For art lovers, the images produced by Artmyn scans are simply stunning. For auction houses, they offer a competitive advantage for winning consignments. We placed our first scanner at Tajan in Paris in November and will be announcing plans to place more in other houses shortly. The images they generate will then be offered exclusively on Invaluable, so collectors browsing on our marketplace will have a wonderfully immersive experience and have great confidence in what they are getting if they decide to bid in sales.

Lastly, we’ve got to continue to reach out to mobile users and deliver intuitive, frictionless opportunities to engage with the auction world. The Hiscox Online Art Trade Report 2018 said art sales on mobile devices has increased from 4% to 20% since 2015. Earlier this year, we launched the Invaluable app for Android, expanding our suite of mobile bidding options which also include the Invaluable app for iPad and iPhone and a mobile optimized website. We currently receive more than 40% of all site traffic from mobile devices and the potential for more growth is great. For example, Android traffic on Invaluable grew by more than 40% last year.


How important is it to communicate with other auction houses?

Auction houses compete on multiple levels, of course, but we think the auction business can benefit by sharing common challenges and opportunities and discussing where we’re all headed in this rapidly changing online world. That’s why on 4-6 February 2019, Invaluable is bringing together members of the top 250 auction houses at our second Global Auction House Summit, this time at the Landmark London hotel. We’ll cover a host of topics over the two days – ranging from the ever-present question of how do we attract new collectors, to the role of women in the business, to the sale of the first AI-created painting and what that means for technology in the art world today and in the future.


Do you think the current regulation of auction businesses is sufficient enough for the industry?

Yes, I do. That said, I believe the market has to take greater steps towards transparency, especially in pricing, but in everything we do. The 2018 Hiscox Online Art Trade 2018 Report cites a lack of transparency as a major stumbling block to online growth of the art market. As I mentioned earlier, our partnership with Artmyn is aimed at increasing transparency and buyer confidence in the online art market, which is good for the whole industry.


With auction houses making the move online what kind of changes have you seen in the demographic of user?

It’s fascinating to see the changes happening in the online art market. Reports like the Art Basel UBS Global Art Market Report and the Hiscox report both cite strong growth in this segment. Art Basel UBS said earlier this year that the art market has grown 72% over the last five years to reach $5.4B in 2017, while Hiscox projects sales will double over the next five years to more than $8B.

Digging into those figures and other reports, we see glimpses of a younger generation of buyers who are very comfortable with technology: confidence in online buying growing among repeat buyers, mobile sales exploding from 4% to 20% since 2015, dealers finding that 45% of online buyers are new to the art collecting. A great majority of dealers and auction houses agree that online sales are a key area for growth over the next five years. Last year, they were 8% of total art sales, but there is no doubt it’s going to increase – and younger art lovers will be driving that growth if we can continue to increase their comfort levels.


How do you think new technologies are changing the experience of bidding and the “auction experience”, is it less intimidating?

Absolutely. Consider my earlier stat on mobile sales jumping from 4% to 20% since 2015. Granted, those are small numbers of buyers when matched against the total art market, but they tell us something. Today, you can sit in a coffee shop in New York and bid live in an auction in Paris – in real time, from your iPad. Technology has demolished some of the barriers to auctions. Going to auctions, especially the high-end events, can be very intimidating for a lot of people. Participating at your home or office or sitting in a park on your mobile device is a lot less intimidating. And realistically, it is impossible for 99% of collectors to be at a sale, on a Tuesday at 4 p.m., in Paris and another two days later in Hong Kong at 10 a.m. But you can be there on Invaluable.

I believe continued advancement in technology is what will drive the growth of online sales.  I mentioned earlier that Artmyn was a tool that helped improve transparency and trust for online buyers.  It also offers what I believe is a viewing experience that is beyond what you can get on the auction floor.  Artmyn allows our users to see a painting down to the strokes of a brush.


We are seeing traditional auction houses slowly increasing their online sales and making use of new technologies, do you think the traditional bricks and mortar auction house will die out over time?

No, certainly not any time in the near future. This prospect was raised not too many years ago when online retail shopping took off and there were dire predictions of brick-and-mortar retailers shuttering. But today we’ve seen a resurgence in storefronts. Now, they are serving a different purpose in many cases – showcasing merchandise while acknowledging that online sales continue to grow. The live auction house experience is wonderful, and some collectors couldn’t imagine participating in any other way. Everyone should attend a live auction to experience it. But there will likely be some categories that do not attract large crowds to auction houses where it will simply make more sense to move those sales online only.


We have to ask what you thought about the recent shredding of a Banksy work at Sotheby’s auction?

Well, as a former marketer, my first thought was, ‘Wow, this just added an amazing twist to the provenance – and value – of this piece. Sotheby’s says they didn’t know in advance this would happen and I take them at their word.


What do you hope for the future of Invaluable?

We want to continue to grow, continue to lead the industry in thought leadership, find partnerships that help us deliver great service to our auction houses, and deliver an easy, intuitive, frictionless experience to art lovers who use Invaluable to find the fine art, antiques and collectibles they desire from all around the world.