Livestreaming auctions, turning them into truly global affairs, was at first a solution to counter the restrictions set off by the COVID-19 pandemic, but now it’s fast becoming a form of entertainment and it is here for the long haul.
TEXT: Denise Tsui
IMAGES: Courtesy of various
The past few months have seen the auction market—more commonly known for its centuries-old traditionalist ways—take calculated experiments and evolve with the fast-changing times of an art world stunned by a global health crisis. In late June, Sotheby’s orchestrated the first livestream auction for its marquee New York sales in a purpose-built studio decked out with eight screens in its London quarters. Oliver Barker, Chairman of Sotheby’s Europe took bids from all over the world, in real time for its Contemporary Art and Impressionist & Modern Art sales, bringing in a combined total of US$363.2 million. It set the industry abuzz and was the first sign that the auction market was ready to come out of its months-long slumber. Barker, in a post-sale comment, described it as “being at the epicentre of a cinematic production.”
First times—as I’m sure we are all well aware—are never perfect and without fault. It applies to just about everything we do, so naturally staging auctions in real time for a worldwide online audience has its challenges. The most criticised oversight of Sotheby’s was the inconsiderate timing of the auction. Evidently New York-centric, the sale kicked off at 6.30pm EDT, a very civilised happy hour for New Yorkers. But it was already midnight in London, and just the crack of dawn for those of us in Hong Kong. So, you can be sure I wasn’t awake to see this ground-breaking art world moment. Barely two weeks later, Christie’s created even more buzz with the ONE auction. Piggybacking Hong Kong’s key spring sales, the ONE was more humane to your circadian rhythm from whichever city you were tuning in, but it too had plenty of not-so-appealing moments including nearly an hour delay to the start of the auction. The ONE choreographed four auctioneers across four cities in a baton-relay with a different auctioneer leading their respective part of the 79-lot sale; a true technical feat if successful. But it wouldn’t take a genius to guess how that turned out when you bring too many chefs to the table. A trophy-winning memorable moment was during the bidding for a Pierre Soulages painting when London-based Jussi Pylkannen, Global President of Christie’s exclaimed, “I’m selling it at…” only to have Cécile Verdier, Head of Christie’s France, jump in with, “No! I’m selling it!” In all, the summer auction season was experimental and drama-packed to say the least. What we were left wondering at the time was whether this was a short-term solution or was the auction format about to undergo immense, permanent change. Now in October, we can be sure to say there’s no turning back, auction-as-entertainment is definitely a thing.
“We are not just building a solution for today, we are building a solution for the future, which also optimizes the way in which we present auctions in this moment,” writes Matthew Rubinger, Christie’s Head of Corporate & Digital Marketing, in an email to CoBo Social. “We are leaning on the virtual elements and livestreaming presently given restrictions caused by COVID-19, but we are re-designing our auction rooms to be flexible, creating both the best possible at-home viewing experience and an even more dynamic in-person experience for when we are ready to welcome clients back into the saleroom.”
In the art world, we all love a bit of spectacle and sensationalism. This much was evident in the chatter that followed the July sales. Anticipation for October’s autumn sales became a mix of interest in the actual lots on offer, and curiosity for what moments of drama the next livestreams would bring; much like that eager wait for the next episode drop of that cliff-hanger Netflix TV show you’re currently hooked on. And both Sotheby’s and Christie’s did not disappoint. While Sotheby’s brought moments of edge-of-your-seat bidding war suspense and action, Christie’s New York sale of 20th Century Art held on 6 October made a sports game out of the auction saleroom.
Sotheby’s enhanced their earlier livestream format, utilising five cameras in the Hong Kong saleroom, with additional cameras in New York and London, and upgraded their on-screen visuals. “The result is a dynamic, truly global experience that marry the best of the established live auction format with the latest technology, and the modifications for safety that our current circumstances require,” writes Yuki Terase, Sotheby’s Head of Contemporary Art, Asia in an email to CoBo Social. According to Sotheby’s, the four evening sales held across 5–6 October—including a single lot sale of a 102.39-carat diamond—attracted some two million viewers across social media and digital platforms. “An astounding achievement for a first trial in Asia,” notes Terase.
Over at Christie’s New York, each lot as it came up on the block was pan-rolled, while additional cameras gave for a more rounded, less static view of the saleroom. Rubinger notes the sale was less technically challenging than the ONE, but it required a heavier lift including full set build-outs across three cities.
The real surprise however, was the inclusion of Bonnie Brennan, Chairman of Business Development, Christie’s Americas, and Richard Lloyd, Christie’s Deputy Chairman as commentators. Seated in their own box (with a social distancing partition between them no less), the pair commentated each lot, not only on the provenance, history and story of the artwork being bid, but on the price jumps and bidding wars taking place. I felt like I was watching a football game, or any sports match for that matter, and nearly rolled off my couch in laughter. Christie’s precious jewel of the evening—which like Sotheby’s, sought to further blur the boundaries of traditional sales categories—was 67-million-year-old Stan, a near complete T-Rex fossil. According to Lloyd and Brennan’s lively commentary, Stan suffered a head and jaw injury during its prehistoric lifetime—if ever there was a competition for the most comical line heard at an auction, this might just be it.
“Adding commentators gave us the opportunity to further engage our new audiences, and re-engage our existing clients throughout the sale,” writes Rubinger. He explains that in taking an audience-centric view, Christie’s is seeking to listen to feedback received from the ONE auction, which includes newer clients seeking a more profound understanding of the saleroom action. Some will say this is great news, but others may argue this will wear down the veil of glamour traditionally associated with the auction market.
“There will never be one answer or format to respond to the new environment, but Sotheby’s will continue to innovate and provide cutting edge viewing and purchasing experiences to our clientele,” says Terase. Technology aside, perhaps not only will we see more disintegration of sale categorisation, but a change in the traditional calendar of marquee auctions. Maybe location will become just a factor of practicality. It seems there’s no better time than now to trial risky formats and test changes for the future.
Its origins as an aristocratic business, admitting only those of certain class and wealth, is what gives modern auctions—widely regarded for its extravagant sales, secretive business practices, scandalous tales of fortune, gossip and high crimes— the allure of grandeur it possesses. It’s an industry brimming with drama and this won’t change, but its accessibility is evolving. As Rubinger says, “The auction world has changed and won’t go back, we have set a new standard and seen that hundreds of thousands of people—rather than mere thousands—want to become a part of it.” So, when the next auction rolls around, be sure to grab a bag of popcorn ready or decanter that bottle of wine, because auction-as-entertainment is here to stay.
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