Issue #27  3/11/2001
eBay Kills Off Butterfield's Photo Dept.; Doenitz Hired By Christie's For West Coast

EBay, in a move last fall that befuddled most in the photography trade, dissolved its apparently profitable photography department at Butterfield and Butterfield and has attempted to move its higher-level photography consignments on-line without any photography experts. Expert Amanda Doenitz was let go in the move after she had gotten the auction house back into the market after an earlier B&B misstep. Most of the photographic material appearing recently on EBay's new Premier specialty site was reportedly developed by the staff at B&B that was let go.

EBay's Premier site is a blatant rip-off of Sotheby's on-line site with little in the way of new ideas. EBay copied some of the worse parts, including a 10% buyers' fee. There is no buyers' fee on the rest of EBay, which is where most of the real on-line action continues to be. An examination of the Premier site's activity over the last several weeks shows little actual sales in the photographic area. Without an on-going pool of work, the site is not likely to draw regular buyers.

Meanwhile competitor Sotheby's On-Line has expert Nigel Russell, who has done an admirable job in trying to get more interesting material to the site through specialty auctions and in getting more accurate descriptions. The site still has problems, but it is going in the right direction, unlike EBay's upscale site.

In another bonehead move, EBay was considering moving its regular Photography Images section to place it under Photographic Equipment as a category, although it shifted direction at the last moment and put it back under art, where it belongs.

Christie's quickly picked up Doenitz to head up its LA photo department. Doenitz was one of the first in the auction trade to pick up on the contemporary trend, and also brought in interesting 19th century material, especially in the last auction. Her catalogues at Butterfield were always intriguing juxtapositions of images rather than a rigid alphabetical listing. As she told me, "I was so tired of opening catalogues up to Bernice Abbott...By making an association with the images that I really liked, I learned to appreciate the other pieces, and I think it made a sale more interesting. People noticed."

Noticed indeed. Collector Michael Mattis reflected what a lot of us thought when he told me: "Amanda did a spectacular job at Butterfield's. Not only did she procure interesting, fresh material (ranging from "old masters" like Weston, Cunningham and Atget, to vernacular), but also her catalogs were curated so beautifully. Rick Wester did the obvious and smart thing by hiring her for Christie's LA; what idiots those EBay managers are!"