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In search of economic survival caused by the current pandemic, the global art market is quickly shifting and adapting. New digital formats have democratized and opened the transparency of transactions and objects in sale. Different items are being sold as fresh waves of buyers are participating in online auctions in an unprecedented way. This first half of the year the most important auction houses have seen a tremendous rise in online sales in comparison to any previous year, experts and important actors of the art market are commenting and speculating on the immediate and future impacts of this forced digitalization the COVID-19 crisis is catalyzing.

Related articles: A new era for auction houses-Times are Changing: the Forum of Italian Contemporary Art-How will art fairs change after this pandemic?


Sotheby's Online Platform.


Online Sales Like Never Seen Before

During this year, Sotheby’s has held more than 70 online auctions which have sold over 112 million euros, this number is five times higher in comparison to the same period for last year. On the 14th of May, the record for an online auction was achieved during a contemporary art sale which surpassed 12 million euros. This was twice as much as the previous record established three weeks before. Christie’s, the other most important auction house has also tripled its online auctions sales during the months of April and May to overcome the halt in activities caused by the pandemic. Andres White Correal, senior director at Sotheby’s said in an interview with the journal El País that “one out of every three buyers is new, it’s a huge number”. Digital privacy is allowing new buyers to feel less intimidated by the big names of auction houses. Without middle men in the transactions also the prices for artworks and objects has increased in competitively.

A New Generation of Buyers

Since auctions have opened their catalogues to less traditional objects such as sneakers, and original manga illustration of animation studies like Studio Ghilbi or Toei Animation (with sales of over 20,000 dollars per item), younger generations with new interests are hopping in.  “This crisis is the moment of truth for online sales” Guillaume Cerutti, CEO of Christie’s said to The New York Times during an interview, speaking about a rising generation of wealthy millennials, who are much more used to buy online. Cerutti spoke about how the options now included in online catalogues that are being bought would have required much more effort to be promoted and would have required a much more difficult process in order to be accepted into the lots of sales.

Higher Transparency

According to Noah Horowitz, director of Art Basel Miami, what would have taken years to happen has occurred in only a few weeks. Pushing art galleries and institutions to make their prices public was a huge challenge which the digital auctions has forced them to do. Given the critical economic situation of the art market, many galleries have had to flexible their politics and loosen their privileged networks to be open to a much more general public. This attracts new potential buyers who were completely unaware of the price of artworks, intimidated by the big names and traditional images of institutions. New users have come to discover, through digital privacy, that the now-public prices are not unachievable as previously perceived.

The Hybrid Future of Art Auctions

Even though witnessing an auction in person is hardly an experience that will be able to be substituted by online sales, the current pandemic has strongly evidenced that it is possible to carry out sales online, attracting new audiences and enabling different types of objects and dynamics. Christie’s is in fact is planning to hold a mixed auction sale in July of this year, that is both in person (where possible) and through digital participation. The auction containing contemporary, modern and impressionist art will be held in parallel in Hong Kong, Paris, London and New York, bidders will be able to participate by phone, physically and online. Current data strongly supports the effectiveness of online sales; it has proved a successful emergency measure for galleries and other institutions for economic survival, at the same time guaranteeing the continuity in operations from the most important auction houses. In time, the COVID-19 crisis will be overcome, measures will be relaxed and the sales of artwork will slowly come back to normal, however there is no doubt that the digital transformation that was brewing will soon be materialized into a hybrid of online and physical sales which will amplify the opportunities in general for the global art market.

Written by Eduardo Alva Lòpez

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