Jeffrey Bezos, the billionaire founder of Amazon.com, has already sat in Austin Powers's Shagmobile. Now he wants to get his hands on the big bar of solid gold. "Can we get the case opened, please?"
The gold bar is on display on the top floor of Sotheby's, along with the Shagmobile (a psychedelically decorated Volkswagen Beetle from Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me), an autographed copy of Led Zeppelin's first album, one of Don Mattingly's Yankees jerseys, a 60-year-old Mickey Mouse doll that looks very little like the cartoon character, and a mint copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone inscribed by author J. K. Rowling. All of them are about to be auctioned off, but without any of the gavels, paddles, or proper Continental accents that traditionally mark such occasions.
Bezos is in New York on a recent weekday for the launch of a new Website designed to take on eBay. A joint venture of Amazon and Sotheby's, Sothebys.amazon.com will auction items online in more than 100 categories, at prices estimated to range from $100 to $150,000 or more. The gold bar will be one of the highest-priced objects. If it were melted down and sold for its weight, it would bring about $99,000 on the current gold market. But, as with much Internet stock, its asking price is a good deal higher than its face value: Sotheby's estimates it will be auctioned off for up to $175,000. That's because it dates to 1857, salvaged from the wreck of a ship that had been transporting treasures from the California gold rush. Bezos refuses to succumb to the obvious analogies, except for one. "Both events happened incredibly fast," the e-commerce pioneer allows. "Internet years are like dog years."
When Amazon.com and Sotheby's announced their partnership this summer, they were happy to point out that both started as booksellers. More recently, Amazon has announced its intention of becoming a place, as Bezos has put it, "where you can buy Anything, with a capital A." Its new partner is also intent on diversifying, to the tune of a $40 million investment in two different sites. Sothebys.com will auction fine art. Sothebys.amazon.com will auction collectibles, which indeed looks to mean just about Anything.
At the auction house, Bezos finally gets his hands on the gold bar. "It's incredibly heavy," he says with delight. "It's the densest thing I've ever held." Is it the most expensive? "It's got to be." Perhaps he's never actually held his own stock.