Company Profile: Lofty aims to dominate mid-market art and antiques sales

This week Art Market Technology spoke with Mark Lurie, CEO of Lofty, the online marketplace which is using technology to simplify the sales process for private sellers of art and antiquities in the mid-market, what Lurie defines as $500-$50,000.

Lurie describes the problem that Lofty solves as more than simply providing an online sales platform:

A big problem in the fine art and antiques market is information – between buyers, sellers and experts. If you can use technology to facilitate information exchange, you can solve a lot of other problems. That’s really what we’re using technology to do – connecting people with each other and enabling communication about objects.

Lurie talks through a Lofty sales process to illustrate Lofty’s value proposition for the typical private seller:

Imagine you are in Birmingham, Alabama and you have an antique silver tea service.  With Lofty, you take photos with your iPhone and upload them with Lofty’s iPhone App.  Within hours, a world-class expert in your piece receives a buzz on their iPhone and views your photos.  They may ask some follow-up questions, like “Can you take a picture of the bottom of each piece?” or “Can you take a close up of the maker’s mark?”  Then they tell you it’s an American silver tea service made by Tiffany in the 19th century, they tell you what it is worth, and catalog the item for sale.  Within hours, you received a world-class evaluation of your item, catalogued for sale.  Within days of listing the piece for sale, a collector has purchased it and we have arranged for shipping.  Our technology facilitates these connections and information exchange.

If the item turns out to be valuable it can be listed on Lofty.com and is made available for sale at either a “Buy Now” price or by auction, according to the seller’s preference. Lofty is clearly positioning itself in the middle market for private sellers:

In contrast to most websites, which only let dealers sell, almost all of our sellers are individuals. They’re people who’ve inherited items, people who are moving and downsizing, collectors who just want to sell their pieces, or people who found something that might be special at a yard sale and they don’t know what it is. We catalogue it, write the description, we set the value and then we handle everything around the sale. We’re also really transparent about our commissions.

Seamlessly connecting private sellers to Lofty’s global network of, currently, 75  experts across specialties is a key USP for Lofty and is something technology has revolutionized:

Because we’re virtual we can get the best experts in the world. Its because we have the best experts that we can do so much of what we do virtually.

When questioned on the potential risk of virtual valuations, Lurie is clear about how, in spite of the technological differences, the incentives behind valuation are no different in an online world:

Valuations are done the same way through Lofty as if they were seen by a local appraiser, but our technology enables us to do it more efficiently, more easily, and at much lower cost. Since we stand behind every item sold with a 100% Satisfaction and 5-year Authenticity Guarantee, we have an incredibly strong incentive to identify and value the items correctly. We have to be right. Being right is extremely important to us.  And that works to your benefit as a seller.

Lurie emphasizes that Lofty has offered authenticity and satisfaction guarantees since launch in 2013 and has had zero returns to date.

Recently a New York Times article referred to the ‘increasingly crowded’ online art sales market. What are Lurie’s thoughts on this?

There can be as much diversity online as there is offline in the art and antiques market. You see a lot of internet sites, some doing very different things and some doing nothing new.   What you’ll see is a lot of people falling out of the market and the people who remain are either doing something new, or they’re enabling an existing process with technology to do it better.

Lofty certainly has – lofty? – ambitions. In our interview and elsewhere, Lurie has spoken about his vision of ultimately three or four online sales platform for art and antiquities: eBay at the lower end, Christies and Sotheby’s at the top end, and Lofty dominating the mid-market. If he’s right, the people who today tune into the Antiques Roadshow could tomorrow be turning to Lofty’s app in order to value and find that buyer for their heirloom.