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To re-engage the global art-buying crowd, auction houses turn to livestreaming

Thanks to the latest technology, the multimillion-dollar top end of the art market can still sparkle in the gloom of a pandemic.

To re-engage the global art-buying crowd, auction houses turn to livestreaming

Christie’s four-venue “global 20th-century art sale” replaced the company’s live evening auctions of contemporary, impressionist and modern art in New York in May and in London in June. (Photo: Christie's)

It started in Hong Kong at 9:25 in the evening, moved back eight time zones to Paris and London in the afternoon, and then finished in New York at 11:15 Friday morning. In just under four hours, US$420.9 million (S$580.7 million) had been spent.

This was the back-to-the-future format of Christie’s livestreamed “ONE” sale, the latest attempt by an international auction house to demonstrate that, thanks to the latest technology, the multimillion-dollar top end of the art market can still sparkle in the gloom of a pandemic.

Christie’s four-venue “global 20th-century art sale” replaced the company’s live evening auctions of contemporary, impressionist and modern art in New York in May and in London in June. It followed Sotheby’s pioneering livestreamed US$363.2 million “clicks and bricks” auction on June 29 and an equivalent hybrid offering at Phillips on July 2 that raised US$41 million.

The COVID-induced shift from live to online-only sales has severely dented turnover at the major auction houses. During the second quarter of 2020, Christie’s auction revenues were down 60 per cent from the same period last year, according to London art analytics company Pi-eX. Christie’s, like Sotheby’s and Phillips, has had to come up with compelling new auction formats to reengage the 0.01 per cent of the population that buys and sells big-ticket art.

“Everyone was holding their breath before Sotheby’s sale,” said Abigail Asher, co-founder of Guggenheim Asher, an art advisory company in New York. “There had been no public transactions of this value since February.” Sotheby’s had shown that there was “absolute confidence in art as an asset class,” she added. “This is a global buying market.”

“Everyone was holding their breath before Sotheby’s sale. There had been no public transactions of this value since February.” – Abigail Asher

That was certainly the thinking behind Christie’s ONE sale, a relay of four auctioneers seamlessly “passing the gavel” in real time, “crossing borders to create one vision, one sale.” Unlike Sotheby’s “multicamera global livestream” predecessor, which featured one auctioneer in an empty studio fluently fielding telephone and online bids from screens, Christie’s sequence of live sales had a lot of moving parts, some of which moved better than others.

“It seemed to be a great thing, but access was a little complicated, and when the Hong Kong auction was not starting half an hour late, I lost interest,” said Nikolaus Barta, a collector and art insurer based in Vienna.

The sale eventually started 56 minutes late. The live feed was prone to freezing and breaking, and viewers were at times confused as to which auctioneer was actually selling the work in question. “No, I’m selling it,” said a frustrated Cecile Verdier, Christie’s auctioneer in Paris, as Jussi Pylkkanen, the company’s global president, conducted a miniauction in London for the impressive 1963 Jean Dubuffet painting Pourleche Fiston. It eventually topped the Paris session with a price of €6.5 million (S$10.5 million).

The sale was meant to have been kick-started in Hong Kong by a large red “Hurricane Period” abstract from 1963 by Zao Wou-Ki, Asia’s most coveted postwar international artist. Estimated to sell for at least US$10 million, it failed to find a buyer.

“I was surprised,” said Christian Ogier, a Paris-based dealer who specialises in modern Asian art. “I thought someone in Asia would go for it. The size, colour and date were good. But it was incredibly expensive.”

It was left instead to the 1989 Gerhard Richter abstract Frost (1) to lead a less-than-effervescent 10-lot Hong Kong session with a price of US$10.3 million, just above its high estimate.

“It was an incredible live experiment, which allows one to feel and realise the width and breadth of the art market as well as judge the depth of it on a specific artist or artwork.” – Christian Ogier

Over in London, Rene Magritte’s quintessentially enigmatic 1962 painting L’Arc de Triomphe, depicting a tree standing in front of a wall of foliage, inspired serious competition, almost doubling its estimate to sell to a telephone bidder in New York for £17.8 million (S$31.5 million).

Rene Magritte’s 1962 painting L’Arc de Triomphe sold to a telephone bidder in New York for £17.8 million (S$31.5 million). (Photo: Christie's)

Most of the sale’s major-name trophies were clustered in the concluding 33-lot New York session. Pablo Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger (Version F) from 1955 and Barnett Newman’s 1948 abstract expressionist rarity Onement V were museum-quality masterworks that appealed to an older tradition of collecting. The Picasso was pushed by three bidders to US$29.2 million, but the Newman, estimated at US$30 million, sold to a single bid of US$30.9 million.

Pablo Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger (Version F) from 1955 sold for US$29.2 million. (Photo: Christie's)

Roy Lichtenstein’s iconic 1994 pop canvas Nude With Joyous Painting, valued at US$30 million, proved to be more in tune with billionaires’ current collecting tastes. From the series of nudes that the artist painted during the last five years of his life and never seen at auction before, this piece sparked a nine-minute battle between telephone bidders before falling to a client in Hong Kong for the sale’s top price of US$46.2 million.

Most remarkable of the seven new auction highs set in New York for individual artists was the US$30.9 million given for Complements, an admired 2.4m-wide, two-panel abstract of colourful intertwining threads painted by in-vogue American minimalist painter Brice Marden, the subject of a sold-out show at the Gagosian Gallery in New York last year.

American minimalist painter Brice Marden's Complements sold for US$30.9 million. (Photo: Christie's)

Painted between 2004 and 2007 and guaranteed to sell for a minimum of US$30 million, Complements more than tripled the artist’s previous auction high. Such are the dynamics of the market for contemporary art that auction prices for Marden are now almost as high as those for an old master like for Rembrandt, whose current auction record is US$33.2 million, according to Artprice.

“Christie’s was trying to set a whole new load of records for artists because they thought they had the whole world looking on,” said Michael Short, an art adviser in Berlin, who noticed the measured nature of the bidding on many of the lots. “It didn’t have the animal energy of a live auction.”

But others were impressed. “It was an incredible live experiment, which allows one to feel and realise the width and breadth of the art market as well as judge the depth of it on a specific artist or artwork,” said Ogier, the Paris-based dealer.

Overall, Christie’s inaugural ONE sale raised US$420.9 million from 79 offered lots. “It’s a great result in the circumstances of the market,” said Guillaume Cerutti, Christie’s chief executive, at the post-sale Zoom news conference. “As a global concept it worked very well.” He added that more than 20,000 people followed the sale on various digital channels.

But as was the case the previous week at Sotheby’s, year-on-year sales figures were significantly lower. Last May, Christie’s evening sales of impressionist, modern and contemporary art raised US$937.8 million, more than double the proceeds of the ONE auction.

By Scott Reyburn © 2020 The New York Times

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