Ladies and Gentlemen, No More E-Bids

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High-society types, passionate for the ping-pong-paddle ritual of bidding millions on works of art, can rejoice. Christie's, one of America's two largest art auction houses, has abandoned its foray into cyberspace auctions and decided to concentrate on the high-ceilinged, highbrow halls of its showrooms. The move puts it in distinct contrast with its main competitor for the past 200 years, Sotheby's, which has embraced online auctions with open arms. In January, Sotheby's set aside $25 million to develop a web site, then launched a separate site jointly with to sell lower-end collectibles. In September, in an attempt to keep up with the Joneses, Christie's launched, but after a brief wooing of e-Bay and Disney as potential partners, it decided to pull the plug.

Some art industry experts say Christie's could be missing the boat. E-auctions are one of the fastest-growing and most profitable forms of e-commerce. E-bay, which has become an invaluable one-stop destination for buying and selling anything from pet rocks to Beatles bootlegs, has quickly established a niche in low-end art. Other sites, such as the more upscale, have darted into the black. At the same time, though, there's the prestige question. Last December, in assessing Sotheby's plan to go ahead with its site, a Merrill Lynch analyst warned the company that a foray into cyberspace could offend its "high-end elite clientele". TIME art writer Steven Madoff predicts that the two companies, best known for the services they provide — such as authentication and appraisal — will not change much for now. "In the foreseeable future," he says, "I can't see a high-end collector with a large collection wanting to sell it online. But as the culture changes and people are more attuned to buying everything online, a parallel market will probably emerge for high-end trading." At that point, Christie's shareholders may want to make sure the company catches on to this Internet thing before Pokémon cards are rare collector's items.