Auction houses may be closed to the public, but some buyers and sellers seem to have had no problem trading a paddle for the click of a mouse.
The number of online-only auctions held globally last month rose 63% from the equivalent period in 2019, according to a new analysis by price database Artnet. In total, these sales generated $20.7 million, about 20% more than online sales in March 2019, and 75% more than March 2018, when the overall market was more robust. . (Warning: our database only collects information about online sales that publish prices.)
Still, the question keeping auctioneers up at night remains: is the variety and volume of transactions sufficient to sustain the business amid an indefinite shutdown?
The amount of money people are willing to shell out for art online is still only a fraction of what they have historically spent at in-person sales, where buyers can get their adrenaline pumping, without talk about the certainty that accompanies the fact of having seen a work. close.
“Most economic and technology experts say this will accelerate trends that were already there, like the disappearance of retail,” says Michael Plummer, co-founder of consultancy Artvest Partners. “Online sales will increase because it is difficult to buy art otherwise. But the question is: how big is the change?
The amount buyers are comfortable spending on artwork online is likely to increase, he notes, but is unlikely to increase enough to make up for what homes are losing. Consider that the average price for a work sold online last month was $6,859. That’s a 16% drop from March 2019, and more than 500% less than the average price for a work sold at IRL auctions in 2019, which was over $40,000.
Price is not the only limiting factor. So far, the most trusted online success stories are from artists and brand designers. Love them or hate them, demand for artists such as Banksy, KAWS, Yayoi Kusama and Yoshitomo Nara – those with internationally recognized styles, prolific output and a wide variety of awards – is proving resilient.
Last week, an online sale of contemporary art organized by Sotheby’s Hong Kong generated 10.1 million HKD ($1.3 million), beating its high estimate of 5.8 million HKD ($748,382), as well as last year’s equivalent sale, which brought in HKD 3.9 million ($503,222). ). The top prizes were two works on paper by Kusama and sleepless night sittinga work in mixed media by Nara published in 300 copies and sold for 600,000 HKD ($77,419), smashing its high estimate of 120,000 HKD ($15,483).
Another unexpected boon from online sales is the number of new customers they attract. Sotheby’s and Christie’s both reported that between 30 and 35% of their recent online bidders were up for first-time online material, and nearly 40% of winners were first-time buyers. Artnet’s April print and multiple auction, which saw a 10% increase over the same auction in 2019, attracted 50% new buyers.
A frequent auction shipper attributed this dynamism to a very mundane factor: boredom. “We’ve slipped some of the lower value stuff into these digital-only sales and I think people are so bored that the houses are attracting larger people who are signing up to bid and the performance of these things is higher than you wouldn’t have thought so,” the insider says.
Sotheby’s, in particular, has been bullish about online sales in recent months, accelerating since its acquisition by telecommunications mogul Patrick Drahi and converting additional in-person sales to digital-only events after its brick-and-mortar salesrooms closed on last month. (Sotheby’s sold 578 lots online in March; Christie’s sold 60, according to the Artnet price database.)
“Much of this was already happening and it depends on what we saw and heard from our customers,” Stefan Pepe, director of product and technology at Sotheby’s, told Artnet News.
The strategy has been particularly good for the auction house’s non-artistic luxury goods segments, an area Drahi’s team is increasingly focusing on. Since closing, Sotheby’s has launched weekly online watch sales and held several sales of handbags and accessories. The house sold a total of $13.4 million worth of items online last month, up from $5 million in 2019, according to our data.
Christie’s and Phillips have been relatively slow to grow their business online, but both promise there’s more to come. Christie’s says it has more than doubled the number of online sales it will offer in April and early May, from nine to twenty. Guillaume Cerutti, said during a press call on April 7. “They are absolutely at the top of our priorities.”
The next two months will be a test of whether auction houses can translate the momentum they are currently generating online into more expensive items. Few people think a traditional in-person sale will be possible in June, when auction houses have postponed their marquee sales to May. Most of the industry is gearing up for some sort of in-person/online hybrid.
“This will be the first real time when you can see the extent to which online sales will replace auctions,” Plummer said. “I find it hard to imagine that will be a number close to the amount needed to make up for what will be lost.”
Additional reporting by Eileen Kinsella
Follow Artnet News on Facebook:
Want to stay one step ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to receive breaking news, revealing interviews and incisive reviews that move the conversation forward.