When Hugh Scully left Antiques Roadshow to launch his online valuations business, it was doomed from the start, as I realised at the press launch
It is 16 years almost to the day since Hugh Scully announced that he was to be the face of Hugh Scully’s World of Antiques, a new online valuations service for internet auction house QXL.com
In what appeared to be an unrivalled coup at the time, the five-year deal was set to net the Antiques Roadshow presenter £3m, made up of an initial payment of £700,000 paid through his production company, Fine Art Productions Ltd, and a further £2.3m profit share, payable on the service’s launch in 2000.
The fact that QXL offered him the chance to take £2m of that money in shares instead of cash illustrates how bullish internet start-ups were as they rode the crest of the first wave of development of what we called the Information Superhighway.
If other plans for the show seemed ambitious at the time, they appear astonishing now, and only serve to illustrate the general naivete of attitudes to the internet in 1999. Scully’s plans included a daily antique auction, collectors’ club and chatroom.
Whether he opted for the shares rather than the cash remains unclear – did they ever reach the 195p option price? – but he was the envy of just about every auctioneer and dealer in the land, and one could only admire his acumen.
However, what was clear to me from the start was that the service simply wouldn’t work.
Food poisoning and the press
It did not augur well when the first of two press launches, held at one of London’s smartest restaurants, ended in mass food poisoning. (It was a reminder, if one was needed, of just how ready investors at the time were to splash the cash, no questions asked.)
Fortunately for me, I had chosen to forego the feast in favour of the second press launch, the next morning, in an internet café on Golden Square. There I spent a couple of minutes interviewing Scully, who was evidently still suffering the effects of the previous night’s debacle and could barely make it through.
It’s astonishing now to recall just how naïve the business model was for the QXL service, but even then it immediately rang alarm bells, especially as it was billed as an all-in-one automatic service, something it plainly wasn’t.
The premise was that those wishing to have objects valued would take a photo, have it processed at a well-known high street store (i.e. Boots) and then email a digital version of the image to QXL who would employ a legion of specialists all over the world to value the item on the basis of the photo.
Three questions which showed Hugh Scully’s project would not work
The answers to three questions I asked Scully that day meant that I left Golden Square certain that the project was doomed. The first was how potential clients got hold of a digitalised image – this was in the age before digital cameras and email saturation.
His answer was that they would take their photo down to a high street shop and have it scanned in before having the digitalised version emailed back to them.
The second question was: Had the deal been done with the high street chain? Answer: Not yet.
The third question sealed its fate in my mind: How much was all this going to cost?
When I added up the initial price of having a film developed – 24 or 36 images printed up at one go was the norm then – the charge by the high street chain of digitalising the image and emailing it to the client, and then the cost of the valuation itself, it struck me that the whole process would come to a minimum of £25 to £30 per client valuation.
Add to this the widespread lack of access to internet services and email, especially among those who had both the objects to value and the money to pay for such a service, as well as all the hassle of taking the photos, visiting the high street, waiting for the email and so on, and it was impossible to see how the service would ever get off the ground, let alone thrive.
If I could work this out in a couple of minutes, surely others would soon arrive at the same conclusion? But it seemed not.
Three months later Scully was billed as a keynote speaker at the first conference on Internet Options for the Auctioneer at Southampton Institute, where most of the industry declared itself still “bewildered and confused”.
Antiques Trade Gazette Internet Handbook advice
At the same time, I was writing a piece for the second Antiques Trade Gazette Internet Handbook entitled Back to the basics of business: Home truths about global communication.
Having trawled through 700 websites to see what worked and what did not, I had my fill of horrors and frustration, concluding: “…however slick the technology, we should not lose sight of the unchanging truth about business success: the technology is the means to an end, not the end in itself. It doesn’t matter how interactive, flashy or colourful your Website, it is the quality of the goods on offer and the quality of the service the customer receives that will determine its long-term prosperity.”
QXL suspended the antiques valuation site 18 months later, a few weeks before 9/11. The deal with Boots had never come through and the public had not proved the eager early adopters QXL anticipated.
Hugh Scully effectively disappeared from our screens. Many other internet start-ups pretty quickly followed suit. They may have failed, but you have to admire their pioneering spirit, even if, in many cases, business sense had been left at the door.
What they did contribute was the development of caution and a more realistic approach to the boundaries of technology when the second wave started. They also did considerable groundwork in software development from which later ventures benefited.
It was reported that Scully had hoped to retain his Roadshow role alongside the new venture, but it was not to be. I only hope that he made enough from the deal in the end to enjoy a fulfilling retirement.