A brave new virtual world or joyless mundane experience? Glamour of collecting gets lost in online translation

Sylvain Levys virtual museum (above). Giorgio Morandis, Natura Morta (Still Life, 1951, below) sold for $1.6m in May, the highest priced work ever to be sold by Sothebys online Courtesy of Sylvain Levy. Gagosian © Everett Collection/Alamy

“Auctions online now…” “New virtual exhibition…” “Online viewing room now open…”

The closure of so many bricks-and-mortar fairs, galleries and auction houses due to the Covid-19 crisis has ushered in a brave new virtual art world. We live in an age of technological “solutionism”, in which very smart people, usually based in California, devise quick, cheap ways of satisfying our every late-capitalist craving, transforming traditional business models.

Business models do not get much more traditional than the art trade. Last year just 9% of its estimated $64.1bn turnover was achieved through online sales, according to the 2020 Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market report. Out of pandemic-induced necessity, however, the stubbornly analogue art world has embraced all things digital. Cancelled fairs have been converted into virtual events and galleries have employed specialist tech companies to create online viewing rooms, while auction houses are ramping up their schedules of online-only sales. “This crisis is a moment of truth for online sales,” said Guillaume Cerutti, Christies chief executive, in a press webinar back in March.

Indeed, in April, the first full month of lockdown in Europe and the US, Christies, Sothebys and Phillipss schedules consisted solely of online sales. These totalled $44m, 92% down on the $585m achieved last April by the houses equivalent live and online auctions, according to Pi-eX, a London-based data analytics company specialising in the art market.

Though price points are increasing—in May, Sothebys sold a Giorgio Morandi painting for $1.6m and HotLotz in Singapore sold an 18th-century Chinese vase for $4.8m—online-only auctions remain a marketplace for -lower-value items, at least according to the wildly relative value system of the art world. “These online sales are pushing the envelope, but they dont have the drama,” says Christine Bourron, the chief executive of Pi-eX, referring to the competitive urgency of live auctions. “Thats how you get crazy prices and perceptions of value. The trouble with online auctions is you have too much time to think, to say no.”

Christies is hoping for more expansive yesses on 10 July from One, a new auction “experience” in which four consecutive live sales of high-end 20th-century art and design will be streamed online from its auction rooms in Hong Kong, Paris, London and New York. This hi-tech hybrid replaces Christies evening sales of Impressionist, Modern and contemporary art in New York (previously postponed from May to June). Last May, the contemporary evening auction alone netted $539m.

It remains to be seen whether this new format can really “capture the excitement and drama of the gala evening sale,” as Christies puts it. But if high-value lots like Roy Lichtensteins 1994 canvas, Nude with Joyous Painting, can attract online bidding at $30m, then that will be a bit of a game-changer.

Giorgio Morandi's Natura morta (Still Life, 1951) sold for $1.6m online Courtesy of Sotheby's

Experiential value

Wherever we look in todays art world, we see that value, in every sense, is increasingly linked to quality of experience. This applies as much to attending an auction or an art fair as it does to being in something as memorably Instagramable as a Yayoi Kusamas Infinity Mirrors or Banksys Dismaland.

So far, technology has struggled to make buying art in the digital space a particularly memorable experience. “It showed us it didnt work,” was the verdict of Dominique Lévy, the co-founder of the leading New York and London dealership, Lévy Gorvy, on the first virtual edition of the Art Basel Hong Kong fair, held in March. “Its not friendly. Its slow, and youre not having fun seeing your friends,” added Lévy in an interview with CNN.

Sales at the online edition of Frieze New York were reported to be “solid” and the presence of prices in viewing rooms introduced some much-needed transparency. Yet with one or two exceptions, transactions were once again confined to six-figure prices and below. In terms of an experience, buying an Alice Neel painting for $550,000 online from David Zwirner was not that dissimilar from buying a piece of gardening equipment from Amazon.

Though impossible to quantify in terms of its financial contribution, it is the social side of the art world—the live experience of being part of an exclusive, global lifestyle and investment club— that encourages the ultra-wealthy to spend millions on works by trophy names. This sparkly peak of the iceberg is all that is visible to a wider world, sustaining the all-important perception that business is “booming”. The Art Basel and UBS report said that in 2019, high net worth collectors on average attended seven art fairs and about the same number of commercial gallery shows. “The social aspect of the art market is important. Theres been such an emphasis on providing an experience. People dont want to go to a Zoom gala,” says Clayton Press, a New England-based art collector. “If the experiential value of the market plummets, people will walk away. Were done for a long time to come.”

But for how long? In 2009, during the financial crisis, sales in the global art market slumped 36% to an estimated $39.5bn, then bounced back to $64.6bn in 2011, according to the Art Basel and UBS report. “This virus mayRead More – Source