Sotheby’s enters new digital age with first live-streamed auction

Sotheby’s embraced digital innovation this week by introducing the first ever live-streamed global art auction. Despite initial scepticism, the hybrid auction generated an impressive total of $363.2 million (£291.3 million).

This was the first major test of the art market since the outbreak of covid-19 in March, which saw the sudden closure of auction houses, galleries and museums across the world. The Contemporary, Impressionist and Modern sales were joined together to create one ambitious online spectacle in place of Sotheby’s usual New York Sale.

Sotheby’s worked quickly to revolutionize its marquee auctions, continuing to present world-class artworks in safe, engaging and new ways,” commented the auction house on its website.

A purpose-built studio was constructed in the auction house’s London branch. Cinematographer Joel Mischcon, who has worked on TV productions such as ‘The X Factor’ and ‘Strictly Come Dancing’, oversaw the complex and almost theatrical multicamera operation.

Chairman of Sotheby’s Europe, Oliver Barker, was surrounded by socially distanced colleagues as he took seven-figure bids from an online audience. Telephone bids were simultaneously received in the adjoining rooms, in Hong Kong and in New York.

This is what we like: the ping-pong between New York and Hong Kong. We see them on the split screens in perfect clarity,” said Barker in amazement during the sale on 29 June.

Prior to the sale critics questioned the decision to move a typically interactive experience to the digital sphere. But speaking beforehand, Julian Dawes the Head of Impressionist and Modern art at Sotheby’s New York noted that “people are ravenous to have more information and be participants in these sales, based on the quality of the material.”

Collectors remained eager during the dynamic auction, with record-breaking bids taken throughout the evening. Latin American art proved to be particularly popular and at times drummed up more excitement from bidders than ‘blockbuster’ names like Pablo Picasso (1881-1973).

The extraordinary ‘Vanguard’ collection’, an 11-work offering, sold for $26.6 million (£21.3 million) and set five new auction records for Surrealist and Modern art from Latin America. It also included seven pieces by female Surrealists; two oil paintings by Remedios Varo (1908-1963) even exceeded their upper estimate. ‘Armonía (Autorretrato Sugerente)’, painted in 1956 by Varo, brought a new artist record of $6.2 million (£5 million).

Although total auction sales have reduced by 95% due to cancellations and postponements compared to the same period last year, Sotheby’s recent online auction has provided a glimmer of hope for the art market’s revival in a post pandemic world.

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