Catawiki, an online auction house that targets ‘exceptional’ items — from vintage comic books to antique cars — has closed a €10 million Series B Round led by VC Accel Partners. In addition, Berlin-based investor and company builder Project A Ventures, Booking.com’s former CMO Arthur Kosten and Dutch media and Internet entrepreneur Willem Sijthoff, an existing investor, also participated in the round.
Moving the complete traditional auction process online, Netherlands-headquartered Catawiki is attempting to differentiate itself from other more general online auction houses by buying and selling what it terms “exceptional objects” and collectables — with a focus on truly unique items. It offers 35 different categories of items for auction, such as comics, video games, antique cars and fine wine. To give you an idea of how this translates in reality, recent sales have included first edition Tintin comics, Rembrandt etchings, dinosaur fossils and Jaguar E-Type sports cars, apparently. So way out my league.
Interestingly, however, Catawiki wasn’t originally focused on auctions. “I am an avid collector of European comic books and wanted to build a great tool to manage my own collection,” explains René Schoenmakers, who, alongside Marco Jansen, founded the company in 2008. “To be able to do this in an easy way, Marco and I created a catalogue with detailed descriptions of all existing comic books which collectors could add missing items to, like Wikipedia. This is where the name Catawiki comes from, by cataloguing in a wiki way.”
Soon the duo expanded the site into other categories, based on feedback from the Catawiki community, before the search for a way to monetise what they’d created began. “We started to think of a way to make money out of the website and tried different business models. We tried the auction model with real auctioneers in December 2011, instantly gaining a lot of traction. Since then, we completely focus on this model with weekly auctions of exceptional items and collectables, curated by real auctioneers,” says Schoenmakers.
To that end, the company employs professional auctioneers and experts in their respective fields to vet and curate what goes up on sale. In fact, of its 70 current employees, 42 are auction specialists, so perhaps not as scalable as a more genuine tech play in that regard. The idea, of course, is to validate what items are put on sale and provide greater peace of mind for buyers. Meanwhile, sellers are advised on how to price items. In other words, this is something quite different from eBay, which Schoenmakers name-checks as Catawiki’s main, albeit legacy, competitor.
“eBay is the main online competitor worldwide. It started out as a place where you could buy collectables and interesting things only, but now there is so much, including many new items and those with ‘buy me now’ prices. We are a focused site, and the curation by our auctioneers improves the experience for people who are interested in exceptional objects and collectables,” he says.
Of course, traditional auction houses are also competitors. Though, in addition to operating purely online, Schoenmakers says Catawiki competes on price, undercutting the typical 25-30 per cent commission charged. “We charge a commission of 12.5 per cent excluding VAT to the seller and 7.5 per cent excluding VAT to the buyer. So in total, our commission is 20 per cent on everything auctioned.”
As well as its Netherlands base in Assen and Amsterdam, the company also has operations in Belgium, Germany and France, and says it will use the investment to expand throughout more of Europe. It also plans to extend the number of specialist auction categories available, and boost its marketing activity and head-count.