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Artwork Auctions Embrace a Way forward for Socially Distant Bidding

This article is part of our latest Fine Arts & Exhibits special report, which focuses on how art endures and inspires, even in the darkest of times.

It’s no surprise that art auctions aren’t what they were before March.

What’s unexpected, though, is the pace and scope of the pandemic transformation, in terms not only of how sales are conducted but also in every facet of the process — and how technology has enabled these changes.

“It’s been an opportunity to transform the industry,” said Bruno Vinciguerra, the chief executive of Bonhams auction house. “It was bound to happen over years, and it only took a few months.”

He added: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

Online auctions have been a growing part of the business for years, and potential buyers have long been able to send in a bid online or by phone, but in-person live sales had remained de rigueur for the most valuable items. A live event held in front of a crowd had an element of theatricality.

“Our business model is very particular,” said Guillaume Cerutti, the chief executive of Christie’s. “It’s based on unique objects and a strong component of face-to-face interactions with our clients.”

Major sales now have a whole new look, thanks in part to the impact of technology. When it became clear in the spring that people couldn’t safely gather in a room, the houses settled on a hybrid model that employed livestreaming to create the feeling of being there.

At Sotheby’s in June, during an auction on contemporary, modern and Impressionist artworks, the auctioneer Oliver Barker was alone in a control room in London fielding online bids and watching screens on which staff members in different locations relayed bids received over the phone.

The total after almost five hours was just over $362 million, with a Francis Bacon triptych garnering $84.6 million from a phone bid and a Jean-Michel Basquiat drawing selling for $15.2 million, in what Sotheby’s said was the highest successful online bid in its history.

“We were pleasantly surprised,” said Stefan Pepe, the chief technology and product officer for Sotheby’s. “Clients had comfort to bid at that level.”

At Christie’s in July, a similar livestream effort brought in $420 million. That auction — which replaced sales that would have occurred separately — featured smaller-than-normal audiences of bidders and onlookers gathered in person in both Hong Kong and Paris, as local health guidelines allowed.

Total sales for the livestream auction were lower than what the separate events would usually have brought, but level of engagement was high: Christie’s had 100,000 online viewers.

Earlier this month, the house held a live-streamed auction of 20th-century material — with a pregame show and color commentary — from its Rockefeller Center auction room. The sales totaled $341 million and the online audience increased to 280,000 viewers.

Christie’s and Sotheby’s weren’t the only ones trying a hybrid model.

“In the past we concentrated on the traditional auction room, and now we concentrate on the virtual auction room,” said Jean-Paul Engelen, the deputy chairman of Phillips.

“The future looks like a hybrid between the two,” Mr. Engelen added. “We’re asking, ‘Do you need 400 people in a room when only a fraction of them bid?’”

Bonhams has been focusing much of its tech development on reducing “bidding latency”: the time it takes for an online bid to be registered by auction house employees, as opposed to a live auctioneer spotting a raised hand.

“It’s critical to make it very, very low,” Mr. Vinciguerra explained. “It’s less than a second now.”

And it’s not just the actual sales that have changed. Many of the technological improvements are focused on the front end of the process: getting people interested enough to bid in the first place.

Phillips announced an exclusive partnership with Articker, an online tool that aggregates open-source data on artists and artworks, including articles and exhibitions, and provides clients with information and context that could guide their bidding and buying.

The hefty, glossy catalogs that auction houses have traditionally relied on are still being distributed, but they are being supplemented by more extensive online offerings that are “arguably richer,” said Mr. Pepe of Sotheby’s.

When clients who have a relationship with Sotheby’s log into the house’s online portal, they may now get personalized suggestions, which the house has been testing, Mr. Pepe said. A recommendation algorithm highlights lots that might interest certain bidders based on their previous activity.

For high-value lots, serious potential bidders would traditionally have gone to see the merchandise in person. Now, At Christie’s, augmented reality is offering an alternative. A buyer could see on a phone screen how that Matisse might look in her living room simply by pointing the camera at a blank wall.

Christie’s already offered the tool on some lots, but relied on it more when the pandemic hit. And so did clients.

“The average user is using it for nine minutes, which is an incredibly long time if you think about it,” said Matthew Rubinger, the head of corporate and digital marketing for Christie’s.

A new innovation this year is “super zoom” technology that allows anyone to examine a work in minute detail — every crack in an old painting and the patinated sheen on a bronze sculpture. “They can zoom in far beyond the naked eye,” Mr. Rubinger said.

But, he added, it was not meant to replace being in the room with a work. “We don’t want to recreate that experience, we want to enhance it,” Mr. Rubinger said. “Now our clients do both.”

Auctions need sellers as well as buyers, and houses have made it easier to consign artworks, too.

At Christie’s, an enhanced online portal helps sellers deal with contracts, track bids and see lot status, and provides three years’ worth of consignment information. Sotheby’s upgraded its online consignment tool, introduced in 2017, to make it easier to add information.

All the auction houses thought that their more tech savvy patrons would embrace the pandemic-era changes, but they have also attracted first-time buyers.

“New clients have been coming to us too,” said Mr. Cerutti of Christie’s. About 35 percent of all buyers so far this year were new to purchasing at the house, with much of the growth coming from online sales.

Mr. Cerutti also predicted that all-online sales eventually could comprise around half of the house’s sales; before this year, they were less than 10 percent.

Houses have also been unsure whether some of their older, more traditional clients would sign on to the brave new auction world.

“People haven’t adapted reluctantly, they’ve given us really positive feedback,” said Mr. Pepe of Sotheby’s.

At Christie’s, some traditional auction buyers made their first online auction purchases this summer, picking up Laurence Stephen Lowry’s oil “Coming from the Match” (1959) for $2.56 million and Tyeb Mehta’s oil “Untitled (Falling Figure)” (1965) for $975,000.

Next up for auction houses is the busy November season, traditionally packed with sales across categories. In the longer term, they must decide what the process will look like if a coronavirus vaccine is introduced.

“When it’s possible to have clients in a room we will do it,” Mr. Cerutti said. “It’s where we belong.”

But the new technological advancements likely won’t recede when that happens.

“The digital tools we’re able to share pre-sale, like super zoom, augmented reality and online galleries, they will stay around in the future,” he added. “They are now the new normal.”

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