The technological revolution has caught up with Sotheby Parke Bernet, the stately auctioneers who specialize in selling the finer worldly possessions of the wealthy to other members of the moneyed class.
Be it silver, rare coins, fine stamps, precious art works or luxury real estate, Sotheby has been a name to be reckoned with for more than two centuries.
This week, the auction house broke new ground. It held the first auction ever for used, operational computers -- mind you, "previously owned," in Sotheby's terminology. About a decade ago Sotheby had a computer auction, but the only machines up for bid then were antiques.
"We're trying to alter the used-computer market. It's going to take some time," said John J. Carr, who heads up Sotheby's new Business System's Department.
The auction house put 13 International Business Machines computers and peripheral equipment on the block Wednesday at Sotheby's York Avenue galleries on Manhattan's Uper East Side.
About 150 spectators showed up for the morning auction, 50 of them registered to make bids and the rest there to watch.
Bids were made on each of the 13 "lots," but only one bid was accepted -- a $13,000 offer for an IBM 370/125 computer and related equipment. The successful bid -- made by telephone -- came from a used-computer dealer in suburban Minneapolis. The used, but operational computer is located in Jackson, Miss. A spokeswoman for Sotheby's said the house generally does not reveal the name of the current owner, but said the successful bidder was named S. Lacny.
The used computer business, like the used car business, is a big business. About $1.5 billion of used computers are sold each year, usually through a network of dealers who specialize in previously owned data processing equipment.
Carr said that in the last eight or nine months Sotheby's sent out 40,000 to 50,000 pieces of mail to potential sellers of used computers "and we were offered hundreds of pieces of equipment."
He said he was not disheartened by the day's events, "although I would love to have sold every machine."
However, he said, "We proved that we can get good machines and we proved that we can get people to come. While we didn't sell much, there were a lot of people there to see what was happening."
He said the auction technique might have put off potential buyers, and Sotheby will look at other methods of registering bids. Potential bidders carried numbered paddles to wave -- a technique Carr said Sotheby used after World War II to auction war surplus goods.
Sotheby has scheduled its next computer auction for Jan. 28.