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The Virtual Auction Experience: Collecting Art in the 'New Normal'

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  • The Virtual Auction Experience: Collecting Art in the ‘New Normal’

The Virtual Auction Experience: Collecting Art in the 'New Normal'

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If the past year has taught us anything, it is that we as a collective are capable of improvising, adapting, and overcoming the curveballs life throws at us. Of course Bear Grylls had meant for these to be the qualities that made one an ideal soldier, but in all fairness, the past year has been something akin to a battle in itself.

Not one to be left behind in the race to keep up with the changed circumstances—ever since the lockdown came into effect around the world in March—the art world, too, and has been swift in improvising ways to adapt. Auction houses and galleries have not missed a beat in moving their operations online and coming up with new ways to sustain the business. These spaces that have been catapulted into the digital space, are now faced with the challenge of navigating this virtual world, and at the same time, keeping the attention of both, the seasoned buyers and the newbies in the game.

Like every other sector of the economy, the heat of the sudden standstill was felt by the art world as well, be it galleries or artists. But it hasn’t been all downhill. And a lot of it has to do with some of the biggest auction houses in the world being quick in moving their wares online, while maintaining the level of client servicing expected of them.

Renowned names in the game like Sotheby’s Christie’s, and ones closer to home like Pundoles Auction House, and Saffronart have reported heartening sales throughout the lockdown since March, and they only seem to be growing.

Francis Bacon’s ‘Triptych’ that sold for 84 Million Dollars at a Sotheby’s online auction. Photo Courtesy of Sotheby’s

When One Door Closes, Two Virtual Ones Open

Although apprehensive about the turnout at first, Sotheby’s, for instance, hosted over a hundred online sales between March and June, totaling $200 Million.

In June, Sotheby’s further tested the digital waters for the sale of high-value art, with a new innovative format of the live auction. The Sotheby’s Marquee Evening Auction ended up making sales worth $363.2 million, with their specialists in New York, London and Hong Kong taking phone bids live on camera, and the auctioneer presiding over the live stream event in London.

The Sotheby’s Marquee Evening Auction being conducted over Livestream. Photo Courtesy of Sotheby’s

A similar virtual sale by Christie’s, around the same time, called the “global 20th-century art sale”, replaced the company’s live evening auctions in New York. The auction that now spanned across London, New York, Paris, and Hong Kong raised $420.9 million, seeing some works going for double, and triple their estimates.

If anything, the unprecedented success rate of these online auctions by the bigwigs in the game shows a promising future in the sphere.

Millennials who are familiar with the online world, and are comfortable making online transactions make up a large portion of this new clientele that the auction houses and galleries are eager to lock-in.

“Complements,” by the American Minimalist painter Brice Marden, sold for more than triple the artist’s previous auction high. Photo Courtesy of The New York Times

The lockdown and the subsequent free time that came at the start of it, has led many young ‘buyers’ to venture deeper into the world of art trade to become serious ‘collectors’.

With the requirement for physical presence and the geographic location of the buyer no longer being factors, online sales in many ways have broken walls of exclusivity, allowing a larger number of people, from across the world, access to their events, their catalogues and, to partake in bidding. This has not only lead to a spike in young collectors but also in the sale of works by emerging artists.

Just the ease of participation that the online events allow has boosted the attendance of these events. The response to this new format of art trading has been so positive that it’s hard to imagine any auction house not considering developing it as a permanent feature.

Navigating the Digital Art Market

Online events are unlikely to entirely replace physical auctions, but like all the other aspects of our lives that have been altered to give way to the ‘new normal’, it is likely that they are here to stay, and only going to get bigger. So, anyone interested in collecting would do well to know their way around it.

If you’re a young collector new to the game, or a seasoned player new to the online world, here are some tips, we think, you should keep in mind while buying art online.

  • Research, Research, Research: Like the big bad wolf, warnings of the ‘big bad internet’ are drilled into our minds, but it never hurts to reiterate. Compared to physical spaces, the scope for fraud and deception is far higher on the internet. So, it is important that you not only research the artist and the artwork you’re planning on buying but also do a thorough background check of the auction house or gallery, their website, and their legitimacy in the market.
  • Read the Fine print: Going to an art fair or an auction in person allows you to see and interact with the artwork. However, things that become obvious to you at first glance like the size, medium, or make of an artwork can be misleading on camera. Make sure you read the details of the piece carefully, to get a clear idea of its dimensions, material, and medium. Furthermore, don’t be apprehensive about reaching out to the gallery and asking after any details that may not be clearly mentioned.

This is a challenge that the auction houses themselves have been conscious of. On tackling this, Edward Tyler Nahem of the renowned auction house, Edward Tyler Nahem Fine Art says, “We’ve succeeded in doing this through the process of better documentation, photography, archiving and relied greatly on personal relationships with collectors to trust you to give them the right advice.”

  • Ask For the Receipts: This might seem like something that would be obvious but you’d be surprised at how often it can slip one’s mind. Make sure you receive an authentication certificate with your purchase, and that all your other paperwork is in order,
  • Ensure Its Safe Arrival: Being able to buy art from across the world, means the art has to be shipped across the world. Seeing as transportation is when any artwork is most vulnerable to damage, it is important you’re clued in on how it’s being shipped, and to what extent the seller is willing to take responsibility for its safe delivery. Furthermore, be mindful of the extra shipping costs, taxes, and overheads you might have to incur.
‘Live’Auction at Sotheby’s taking telephonic bids. Photo Courtesy of Sotheby’s

What The Future Holds

Galleries and Auction houses were already starting to explore the digital space before, but the pandemic forced them to fast track the process and steer blindly through the storm with little to go by. However, auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s taking the lead, have set the tone for the future of online sales. Being able to provide a seamless experience with online sales has solidified its place in the art market as a viable option.

Furthermore, art spaces have found creative ways to use digital storytelling and digital marketing to garner interest as well as facilitate easier access to all their works, ushering in a new, exciting time for the art market.

In turn, they have also seen a higher level of engagement with not just the classics by old masters, but the less known artists selling for far higher than the estimates. And this convergence of the art market with media and telecommunication is likely to get further entwined in the future.

All things considered, the lockdown has opened an alternate—sometimes preferred—pipeline for collectors to buy art, and it seems like it will continue to have a significant presence in the art market, even when the physical spaces are back running in full capacity.

Don’t know where to start your collection? Look through the collection of corporates here to find out what’s popping.

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