By Wayne Jordan
The latest salvo in the antiques database wars has been fired by Heritage Auctions in the direction of Christies [http://bit.ly/2jxZmuI].
Heritage claims that the operators of Christie’s Collectrium database stole nearly 3 million of their archived auction listings. The lawsuit alleges that Collectrium set up fake accounts on the Heritage site and used spider bots to scrape auction data.
Allegedly Tapping Into Spy Tactics
One of the fake accounts was set up in the name of Jason Bourne, the super-spy character created by author Robert Ludlum and depicted in the movies by Matt Damon. I suppose if you’re going to spy on a competitor, there’s a certain amount of hubris in using the name of a super-spy to do so.
Heritage tracked the fake accounts (with James Bond tracking software, perhaps?) to Collectrium. When Heritage discovered the (Bourne) Identity of the culprit, they issued a (Bourne) Ultimatum in the form of a lawsuit.
Collectrium maintains that their technique of collecting (aggregating) online data is a common practice and that they followed all the rules relating to automated aggregation. Christie’s recently told Artnet News: “We are reviewing the allegations against Collectrium, a wholly independent subsidiary of Christie’s.” (That’s called “distancing oneself from the problem.”)
Database Investment Changing Business
This isn’t the only time that Christie’s and Heritage have locked horns, nor is it the first time that legal remedies have been sought for database copyright infringement. Earlier in 2016, the Magnus App was removed from the Apple store over charges that it scraped art pricing data from the ArtFacts and Artsy databases. Magnus is still operating [http://artnt.cm/2auT5ZC].
As we move deeper into an era of pricing transparency, access to proprietary databases will become more valuable to collectors, dealers, and appraisers. Database owners will become increasingly protective of their data assets, and licensing arrangements will become more complicated.
Currently, there are websites where database access is offered for free, such as eBay, LiveAuctioneers, Heritage, and another 90+ listed on Antiques Navigator (http://bit.ly/2jnjSL0). Access is also offered through public libraries (check Cengage Learning at http://bit.ly/2kc0Fkc), and also by subscription (WorthPoint, Terapeak, Kovels, Prices4Antiques and others).
Weighing Options of Various Database Services
Collectors and dealers place a premium on their time. Database operators must make their product easy to access, pertinent, and reliable. Free databases are sometimes limited in scope, but paid databases may not give us what we are looking for, either. How can we determine which database service best addresses our needs?
There are three primary issues to consider when choosing a database service. (Note that although I’ve limited my examples to the industry’s “top two” databases – Terapeak and WorthPoint – my remarks apply to their competitors as well).
How reliable is the data?
As an appraiser, I must back up my market-price appraisals with actual, pertinent sales data. In that regard, it’s important for me to know where the data came from. Some small databases – I won’t name names – list the price opinions of the operator. These are, in my opinion, entertaining but of dubious economic value. When executing an appraisal I look for sales results coming from multiple online and live auctions; the more data sources the service provides the more comfortable I am with the results.
Terapeak, for example, aggregates data from eBay, Amazon, and Alibaba. Amazon and Alibaba data
are of questionable value for Antiques and Collectibles dealers. In the days when I was an active eBay seller I used Terapeak regularly. With few exceptions, Terapeak provides all the information that eBay sellers usually need. It is useful for determining supply, demand, sell-through, and price vs. condition (though I do question the usefulness of their “average price” feature).
EBay descriptions aren’t, in my opinion, particularly reliable. They depend on the expertise of the listing seller; descriptions are often meager, wrong, or both. Antique dealers would be foolish to rely too heavily on eBay as a retail pricing guide, and appraisers and estate executors would be remiss in using eBay data alone to make value determinations.
WorthPoint, on the other hand, aggregates data from over 350 online and offline data partners (including eBay). Does that make WorthPoint data inherently better than Terapeak data? Not necessarily; it depends on what your needs are. For eBay sellers, WorthPoint might be overkill; but for antique dealers, it offers a broader perspective on the market.
2. How “wide” and/or “deep” is the database?
Wide databases have multiple product categories. EBay, Terapeak, and WorthPoint offer wide antiques and collectibles databases. Narrow databases specialize in one niche only, such as books (http://rarebookhub.com) or art (Art Net Worldwide, http://artnet.com). If you collect or deal in one niche only, it doesn’t make sense to subscribe to a wide database (unless you can subscribe to a particular category at a reduced rate).
Another consideration is how “deep” a database is; in other words, how many records are stored, how far back the records go, and if there is any “points of connoisseurship” data available. Connoisseurship data is one point where old-fashioned books have an edge over electronic databases, although WorthPoint is making a significant effort to provide such data.
Of course, there is no relationship at all to the “width/depth” of a database and the subscription price of a database. The value is in the quality of the data itself.
3. How accessible is the data?
No matter how wide or deep a database is, if you can’t find what you’re looking for, then the subscription is worthless to you. Make sure the database you are considering provides the search and sort fields that you are likely to use in your research. It’s especially helpful if searches can be refined without affecting your basic search.
With eBay, for example, I can search for an item, view the results, and then add parameters to further refine my search. Databases that won’t allow this type of refinement are extremely frustrating and time-consuming to use.
Fortunately, paid subscription databases offer free trails. When you decide that a subscription will improve your buying/selling, my advice is to sign up for several free trials concurrently and compare the ease of use, search results, and quality of data from each source.