The New Breed Of Art Collector Who Is Happy To Spend Millions Online

Emilee Geist

Banksy’s seminal Show me the Monet work is being auctioned next month with a guide price of $3.8-6.4 … [+] million. Sotheby’s “The door has been opened to the future of auctions,” Sotheby’s Grégoire Billault said after a globally livestreamed art sale broke 14 new records. That door looks like […]

“The door has been opened to the future of auctions,” Sotheby’s Grégoire Billault said after a globally livestreamed art sale broke 14 new records.

That door looks like it will have been kicked off its hinges by the end of the year. With an eye-catching program of high profile art fairs and auctions lined up in the coming months, there is a real chance that further records will tumble.

Art Basel’s online viewing rooms, “OVR:2020”, open their virtual doors today, showcasing 600 works across 100 galleries in 28 countries. 

Frieze London and Frieze Masters will go ahead from 8-11 October, and on 21 October, Sotheby’s is livestreaming an auction in Paris for the first time and combining it with a simultaneous event in London. 

The joint sale will feature a painting by abstract artist Bridget Riley, with an estimated sale price of $7-9.6 million and a Banksy (pictured above) at $3.8-6.4 million. The Banksy, Show me the Monet, is the British contemporary artist’s tribute to Claude Monet’s legendary painting of a Japanese bridge in a garden at Giverny. First exhibited in 2005, it playfully features fly-tripped rubbish in the famous lily pond, in what has been interpreted as a critique of environmental destruction and throwaway consumerism.  

A sale of Banksy prints last week totalled $2.7 million, nearly five times the estimate, with every single lot selling for prices above the highest estimate.

Art goes digital

The art world has been quick to adapt to the challenges of Covid-19 and wealthy collectors have proven that being unable to physically view a piece will not deter them from bidding for it.

That unprecedented night on 30 June that Sotheby’s Billault felt marked the true arrival of online auctions saw a world record bid of $73.1 million cast for a Francis Bacon masterpiece. The painting, a triptych inspired by the Greek playwright Aeschylus’s Oresteia, was ultimately sold to a Chinese telephone bidder for $84.6 million. 

The evening had already seen the record paid online for an artwork smashed twice. Joan Mitchell’s Garden Party sold for $7.9 million, only to be surpassed by Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled (Head), which went to $15.2 million. That figure was 10 times the previous record paid online, but the size of the bid on the Bacon piece dwarfed it, even if it did prove unsuccessful.

Underlining the scale of the change, online art sales had for several years stubbornly remained around 10% of the total art market, even as digital has grown to dominate auctions in other areas. A UBS and Art Basel survey this month estimates 37% of total sales in the first half of the year were carried out online. 

This broadly tallies with Sotheby’s experience, with the company saying that its online sales, at $326 million so far in 2020, are already four times the $80 million seen in 2019.

Maria de Peverelli, executive chairman of Stonehage Fleming Art Management, which advises wealthy clients on their art collections, said clients have obviously been forced to buy online due to the coronavirus. However, she cautions against regarding the shift online as seamless, noting there are caveats. 

“Both galleries and auction houses have enhanced and expanded their online presence, trying to make it a fun and easy process. Online auctions, in most cases, also give also more time to think as they last a few days,” she said.

“Most collectors have also been buying through sources that they trusted, with all the positive and negative aspects of this, and knew before. Thinking about the physicality of an artwork and its ‘presence’, one should not underestimate the fact that most collectors buying important (expensive) artworks online, are buying works by artists they already know.”

The UBS/Art Basel survey of high net worth art collectors perhaps unsurprisingly found the younger generations were more comfortable buying online. Nearly a fifth, 17%, of millennial respondents said they had spent over $1 million on art this year, compared to just 4% of boomers.

This trend has also been reflected at Sotheby’s, which said almost a third of its online buyers were under 40 this year. The auction house pointed out that 40% of the buyers were new to the company, with 20% hailing from Asia.

Christl Novakovic, CEO and head of wealth management of UBS Europe, believes the move online has attracted a cohort of new affluent collectors, who value the price transparency and anonymity of internet auction.

“Strengthening this digital community globally may be essential for the health of the market in the future,” she said.

Know what you are buying 

The major auction houses and galleries now offer everything from greater magnification, so you can inspect an artwork more closely, to virtual reality apps that will let you see how it looks in your home. But nothing can replace truly doing your homework. Remember, the art world is unregulated.

De Peverelli said most of the due diligence required has not changed and can be done remotely anyway. Buyers need to consider the piece’s authenticity, condition, and its provenance. How does the quality of this particular artwork compare to the rest of the artist’s works and what have they sold for. 

“In relation to condition, the world is adjusting to virtual condition reports. This is what every museum does nowadays, when opening or closing an exhibition, because of the different regulations and travel restrictions in the countries both of the lenders and borrowers. This system actually allows for more people to be ‘present’ and ask questions, as different experts can ‘attend’ from wherever they are,” she said.

“The price of what one is buying, and the source it comes from, have obviously an impact on whether one should try to see (through a trusted agent or virtually) the item.”

With lockdowns being extended in many countries amid fears of a second wave of Covid-19, online auctions will remain center stage in the art world for the foreseeable future.

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