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Circline: Selling Old-Time Antiques On Internet Time

E-commerce has become the way to buy everything from customized little knick-knacks to lawn equipment, but one start-up is proving that people want to shop online for one-of-a-kind antiques and other rare items. As a result, Circline (http://www.circline.com) strives to build the reputation of the Web as a conduit to collectibles.

"Our customers demand the best," said Circline CEO Sean Mast. "They are looking for one-of-a-kind pieces that are hundreds of years old. You can not find these items in any store." Adds COO Rachel Meyer, "We wanted to build a business that could not be created offline. If you are selling books, anyone else can undercut your pricing. Our market is completely fragmented; this is not a network that you can build easily."

Circline employs a network of 700 invited dealers. Eighty percent are in England and Europe, while the rest are in the United States and Canada. These dealers, all individual entrepreneurs who are passionate about their trade, are selected by a vetting committee. That is to say, no one will be added to the network unless five other dealers can vouch for them. Meyer and Mast, who are married to each other, use their personal connection as an asset. "A lot of the dealers we recruited are family-owned businesses, and they appreciate that we are one as well," Meyer said.

Circline arranges the usual stuff, payment and shipping, but also provides services that are unique to the market: If you want to fly off to Europe to see the piece, they will make arrangements. Then there is the standard return guarantee along with the lifetime assurance of authenticity. That is to say, if it turns out the piece is fake two years down the road, they will refund your money. All dealers sign a certificate of authenticity which arrives with the piece. "This is something that our dealers requested," Meyer said. "They were frustrated that auction houses don't guarantee pieces and wanted to set themselves apart."

While the company was founded in December 1997 and went online in May 1998, its first venture round closed in September 1999: $7.4 million funding from Bessemer Venture Partners and Trinity Ventures. "It was fast," said Meyer. "We targeted five venture capitalists on Sand Hill Road in Silicon Valley, went out there and didn't come back until it was finished. We called the CEOs of the firms we liked, and made our decisions from there."

Meyer said the fine art, decorative art and antique furniture market brings in $22 billion annually, with $5 billion of that going to auction houses. "People have the idea that when they buy from auction houses they get a good deal. That's not always true."

She adds that buyers can buy original goods from Circline and get a better value than a reproduction. "Some of these reproduction beds cost $20,000 to $30,000. They're beautiful, but they actually lose their value. Right now, there is an authentic antique four poster bed on our site for $8,000, and this will increase in value."

"This market is one of the most fragmented in existence," said Tod Francis of Trinity Ventures. "The inventory is unique by definition, and it is hard for the buyers and sellers to find each other. This service brings them together, and enables them to find products they could not find otherwise. This is one instance of how the Internet is changing purchasing behavior." Francis points out that a particular gallery may have access only to walk-in traffic, but Circline greatly expands their options by connecting them to rare goods located in other cities.

Circline may be unique but they haven't become complacent.

"A lot of companies are doing arts and antiques, but we are the only ones who are developing a centralized marketplace," Meyer said. "But we have our eye on the competition, we are watching out for two guys in a garage."

Company Name: Circline Inc.
Address: 1 Park Ave., New York, NY 10003
Phone: 212-363-4120
Fax: 212-363-4124
Contact email address: info@circline.com
Web address: http://www.circline.com
Investors: Bessemer Venture Partners and Trinity Ventures.



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