By Eric Bradley, Michael Weems, and Brian Shipman
When Steve Ivy looks back at 50 years of selling $10 billion worth of high-end art and collectibles, he doesn’t see dollar signs. He sees faces–the faces of his partners and the faces of hundreds of employees who helped him build Heritage Auctions into the world’s number-one numismatic auctioneer and by far the largest auction house founded in the United States.
“There is no way I could have built Heritage into the company it is today without my partners,” Ivy said, “and my partners and I never could have built Heritage without the awesome group of people who work here.”
As the firm’s CEO, Ivy oversees an organization of 600 employees worldwide, more than $800 million in annual sales and a reputation as a scrappy “industry disruptor” in the traditional auction sector. Five decades of growth and innovation can be traced back to 1959, when coin collecting took hold of 9-year-old Ivy like a fever. By the age of 20, he was a familiar face at coin shows across the nation, had opened his first office in Dallas and had become friends with a 17-year-old newly minted coin dealer named Jim Halperin.
The booming coin market of the 1970s set the two as heated yet friendly rivals, whose businesses expanded from shops and shows to auctions. Halperin bought a mainframe computer in 1975 and started an auction firm later that year. Ivy followed suit on both, and his first auction in 1976 drew $650,000 (roughly $2.8 million in today’s dollars). “That’s a number we have surpassed over 100 times with single lots since then time,” Ivy said. “By 1979, we [Steve Ivy Rare Company] were the U.S.’s second-largest coin company with 150 employees … but Jim [New England Rare Coin Galleries] was No. 1.”
When the metals market crashed in the early 1980s, Ivy called Halperin with a proposition: Nothing could stop them if they combined the two companies and their individual talents. When the duo founded Heritage Galleries in 1982, competitors predicted the partnership would be lucky to last three years. Jim brought his best friend (and employee since 1975), Marc Emory, to Dallas with him to set up Heritage’s gold import business in Europe. Soon thereafter, Steve and Jim hired operations wizard Paul Minshull and coin expert Greg Rohan to help move the business forward. All five are still at Heritage. Marc, Greg, and Paul are now each part owners of the business, along with Todd Imhof, Cris Bierrenbach, Ryan Carroll, and Steve’s son, Chris Ivy.
How HA.com Redefined Heritage Auctions and the Collectibles Market
“Our auction department was still behind several numismatic auction firms,” Ivy said. “Then, around 1995, everything changed. There was this new thing called ‘the internet.’”
The potential captivated Halperin, in particular: a connected world was tailor-made for the auction business. “Not only could Heritage reach clients around the world,” Halperin said, “but we could even the playing field for all buyers and sellers by making private information public.”
Between 1995 and 1999, the partners funneled resources to develop what would become HA.com. Heritage was the first auctioneer to combine traditional floor bidding with active internet bidding. The innovation catapulted the auction portion of the business to number one in that space, in commanding more than 50 percent of the market.
“It was perhaps Jim’s best idea to build the website to make the entire auction process as transparent as reasonably possible,” Ivy said. “We listed all past lots and prices, which turned HA.com into the most-used resource in coins.”
In 2000, Paul Minshull negotiated the purchase of Currency Auctions of America (CAA), the number two rare currency auction company, acquiring its customer list, brand, and renowned experts Allen Mincho and Len Glazer. Within months of integrating CAA into Heritage’s platform, CAA was number one in currency, as well.
With a website years ahead of competitors’ sites, Halperin wondered where Heritage should grow next. First up: rare comic books. “Jim came to me and said he thought we should get in the comic auction business,” Ivy said. “I don’t remember what my first reaction was, but I suspect it involved a strange look.”
Heritage’s second rare comic book auction in February 2002 sold a world record $2.3 million, but it tossed Ivy and his partners into unknown territory. “We knew the coin business, and Jim understood the comic business, but we didn’t have expertise in other collectibles,” Ivy said. “We did, however, have computer programs and know-how that could adapt to other collectibles.”
Growth during the 2000s included the addition of 30 new auction categories. During the last eight years, the company’s business plan focused on a different type of expansion, as offices opened across the United States (New York, Beverly Hills, San Francisco, Chicago) and internationally (Hong Kong, Amsterdam, and London).
Thinking Like the Collector: Why Site Design Matters at Heritage
The firm’s website remains the backbone of the company. Even in its early years of development, HA.com was honored as one of the top 250 websites in the world in 1999 in Forbes Magazine’s “Best of the Web.” Nearly 20 years later, the website is cited regularly for its impact by industry watchers ranging from Robb Report Magazine to Hiscox’s Online Art Trade Report, for high-net worth collectors, and Art Basel’s annual global art market analysis. All point to HA.com as the world’s best online platform for buying and selling rare coins and other collectibles.
“Bidders can see and hear the auctioneer and bid live with a single click,” Ivy said. “The bidding platform is the engine behind weekly internet auctions. It was important to us that we present a seamless, familiar interface and automated auctioneer audio each time the bid advances.”
Another priority: search results.
“The site’s auction archives contain prices realized, full descriptions, and images for more than 3 million coin and currency lots alone, plus similarly unabridged records–we show them all, not just selected results–from dozens of other categories. So our search engine systems had to be a top priority,” Halperin said.
A combination of advanced guided navigation technology and proprietary keyword matching algorithms connects clients to the coins they seek. Heritage provides comprehensive full-color and enlargeable photographs and detailed descriptions of each lot, with video lot descriptions on select items.
“We wanted collectors to see an instant visual listing from search results,” Halperin said. “This convenience allows easier navigation between the original search and its result without having to go back to a separate page of search listings. Every new innovation is designed to help our customers find what they need while saving them time.”
One of the newest and most convenient technologies implemented at HA.com is a barcode reader to search for PCGS- and NGC-graded coins via the firm’s new mobile smartphone app. Users simply tap the barcode icon in the search bar, select either PCGS or NGC, and then use the phone’s camera to read the barcode. The result is an instant set of search results for coins with that PCGS or NGC number, including those up for auction and those in auction archives.
Visitors can register using their social media credentials, and then find items in which they are interested by using the powerful guided navigation search, which lets them refine their searches by a number of filters, such as subcategory, grade, service end-time, and current bid.
Delivering the Coin Collector’s Online Home with ‘My Heritage’
“In addition to bidding and consigning, we all wanted our clients to use the site to document their collections,” Ivy said, “whether they were beginning collectors or aficionados.”
Consignors can access a personalized section called “My Consignments.” The section connects them with dedicated consignment directors, as well as details on all past, current and future auctions to which they have consigned.
Visitors may also create want-lists tied to an automated system that sends an email alert when an item is available. Top picks can be added to “My Tracked Lots” for easy reference, while bidding adds the item to “My Bids.” The text (SMS) outbid notices and traditional email outbid notices ensure that Heritage clients rarely forget to bid.
Visitors also have access to the “My Recommendations” program, which identifies items of interest for clients based on their past activity. Winning a lot automatically moves it into the client’s “My Collection,” which allows clients to receive anonymous offers or set a “buy now” amount to resell any item they own, directly and anonymously via HA.com.
For Buyers and Sellers, Transparency is Job #1
“Transparency means giving everyone unbiased information so they can make informed, confident decisions,” Ivy said. “We want bidders to know as much as possible about a coin and its value.”
In plain sight for each coin are disclosed reserves, multiple third-party price guides, population reports for both the standard coin and specific varieties, links to coin details on NGC Explorer and PCGS CoinFacts, and comparisons to sales results in Heritage’s own auction archives.
A price guide for beginners answers quick valuation questions while a price guide for numismatists combines six price guides into one. The site also includes price guides from Coin Dealer Newsletter (CDN), Numismedia, NGC, and Collectors Universe, with census/population data from NGC and PCGS. If clients sold the same lot or a similar lot, or if they can find where someone else has sold that item, the data appears on the item page for maximum transparency.
Another advantage is the arsenal of bidding options to help each client craft a strategy when seeking an elusive piece. Secret proxy bids can be off-increment once they exceed the next required increment. “Bid Protection” allows secret proxy bids.
It gives bidders control of how their bids are applied to the number of auction price increment increases. The proxy bid is automated and is only activated to outbid a fellow live bidder. “Live Proxy” bids (like Bid Protection) can be placed as the live event approaches and will be hidden until live bidding. Cut bids, accepted only once per bidder during live bidding on each lot, allow a half-increment bid.
Customizable alerts notify bidders when something important happens, such as outbid notices (with one click access to bid again), want-list notifications when special inventory arrives, live auction alerts via text or as an app notification, and shipping alerts to allow buyers to track deliveries.
Secret Features of Ha.com from Heritage Insiders
“There are a number of ways advanced collectors can use the site based on their expertise,” Halperin said. “For instance, no one likes a ‘snipe bid’ that leads to getting outbid at the last second, so we created a bid protection system.”
One-half to three increments of Bid Protection can be selected, after which Heritage’s system will place that bid only if necessary to maintain the clients’ winning bid. Heritage reports that almost 25,000 bidders have placed more than 125,000 protected bids.
Savvy users go a step further and use Heritage’s text (SMS) alert system to let them know when they are outbid and also to alert them when lots in which they are interested are about to hit the auction block so they can bid in real time on HA.com/Live.
Another unique feature of Heritage Live is “Budget Bidding.” Bidders enter a total amount they would like to spend and then place bids on all of the lots they would like. As the auction progresses, the system places their bids up until the limit of their budget. Using this system, discerning bidders can bid their full amount on two like items; and if they do not win the first one, the system will attempt to win the second item. Likewise, if a bidder wins the first item, the system would not place further bids if doing so would exceed the bidder’s budget.
“The Browse Tabs on the lot page is another feature used extensively by the experts to save time,” Halperin said. “These tabs allow you to scroll through a carousel of items, such as your search results, an entire auction or your ‘Wantlist Matches,’ all without leaving the lot page.”
Two Clicks to Buy or Consign
Consigning to a Heritage auction means access to the industry’s top experts and the auction world’s deepest well of clients, Halperin said. “We surpassed 1 million online bidder members in 2016 and add an additional 5,000 members every month,” he said. “Clients span the United States and 185 countries with particular emphasis on fast-growing, affluent areas across Europe, Asia, and Latin America.”
Skilled numismatists manage the entire consignment process. This concierge service includes evaluation of the collection and advice as to the best way to maximize the value in terms of third party grading and the best venue for each item, often with generous cash advances. No auction firm is more flexible at meeting consignors’ widely varying needs.
Once a consignment is underway, in addition to their personal consignment directors, consignors can count on regular email updates from the system as to the status of their consignments, as well as real-time access to the consignment through the My Consignments feature on HA.com. Consignors are notified as the items are processed into the system, make their way to and from third party grading, are imaged and described, open for bidding, and proceed through the Heritage Live event.
Bidding is easy, too. For example, most bidders know about Heritage Live (Heritage’s real-time online auction platform that works from a desktop, tablet or mobile device), and on HA.com, bidders can use features like guided navigation search, the “My Wantlist” feature, “My Recommendations,” and “People Also Viewed” to zero in on their items of interest.
Once an item of interest is identified, bids can be placed directly from the search results page, the item page, the My Tracked Lots and My Bids pages, through Heritage Live, or even via snail mail, fax, and phone bidding during the live event.
Bidders can learn about items of interest through Heritage’s digital and print marketing, including pay-per-click search engine marketing, email marketing, social media, display marketing, print advertising, and full-color printed catalogs.
“Heritage reaches the bidders where they live, both online and offline,” Ivy said. “All of our partners and employees make decisions based on a long-term perspective–constantly devising win-win agreements with clients and partners. It has worked for the last 50 years and that’s how we want to grow for the next 50 years, well after Jim and I are no longer at our desks.”
Eric Bradley, Michael Weems, and Brian Shipman are employees of Heritage Auctions.
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