This new decade started with an unprecedented use of the word “unprecedented”. A changing in our language is just one of the firsts notable phenomena since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Isolation, social distancing, and travelling restrictions are changing the way we experience this new world, to which all the industries worldwide need to adapt. As the evolution theory teaches us, indeed, only the organisms that are able to develop features according to a newborn environment are meant to survive. In this context, the burning question that surrounds specifically the art world is: how a champagne glasses, art fairs, and glamorous rendez-vous based industry can cope with social distancing and travel bans? The first immediate reaction among auction houses, art fairs, and galleries has been to try to move all the businesses as fast as possible in the digital world, fostering an innovation that was already in progress. In this new religion we can identify the following holy trinity: online viewing rooms, Zoom webinars and Instagram live sessions -such as the LVH Art Lives series, happening every week on Lawrence Van Hagen's IG profile.
The untraveled roads are yet to be discovered, and it comes with a genuine surprise to see that Sotheby’s, one of the leading reality of the art world, decided to go for an unexpected path, the one of cooperation between the auction house and art galleries. Indeed, after an eventful year that turned Sotheby’s upside down, at the end of April the company has announced the inception of Sotheby’s Gallery Network, a new virtual marketplace dedicated to art galleries. That means that a prestigious crowd composed by Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, Lehmann Maupin, Jack Shainman Gallery, Luhring Augustine, Kasmin Gallery, Petzel Gallery, Sperone Westwater, and Van Doren Waxter can showcase a few artworks by paying the auction house a flat commission based on sales. All the pieces presented on the platform can be advertised on the galleries’ websites and social media pages as well, however, interested collectors must purchase the chosen works only through the Gallery Network. This is an incredible opportunity for both parties. On one hand, these galleries can take advantage of the power and the loyal network of one of the main industry players, increasing their chances to reach a sustainable level of sales even during these “unprecedented times”. Moreover, Sotheby’s celebrated name functions as a guarantee of the marketplace’s smooth management and likely success, due to their extensive experience in online sales. On the other hand, Sotheby’s gains both in return of image, as it is showing a strong sense of community by supporting galleries that in ordinary times would be considered as competitors, and it has the chance to spread the tentacles in a different sector within the art market. It is probably too soon to say whether this unexpected change in the auction house’s business will outlast the pandemic, nevertheless, it is still providing food for thought in imagining what a rethinking of the business model of centuries-old institutions could look like.
If you are particularly skeptical, you might think that this is just a clever move to eat more slices of the cake, riding the wave of a global crisis that is not giving many options to try to keep the “business as usual”. However, despite the precarious picture of Sotheby’s financial annual report of 2019 drafted by Deloitte’s, the online transition has been incredibly successful, bringing almost $26 million across 14 sales only in March. Under the direction of Ashkan Baghestani, the Contemporary Curated London auction broke all the records for an online sale, led by George Condo’s masterpiece of “artificial realism” Antipodal Reunion (2005) sold for $1.3 million, the highest price ever paid for a painting online. This result has been possible due to the strategic decision of making this piece the protagonist of the Curated sale instead of selling it as part of the Contemporary Evening Sale. According to the Director and Head of Sale for Contemporary Curated, Sotheby’s succeeded in guiding the change in the psychology of collectors, especially the older generation that is more accustomed to be in the auction room or to bid on the phone. Long conversations with clients and strong narratives made this shift possible, demonstrating how the physical auction room frenzy can be somehow replicated in the digital world as well.
Although the lockdown forced the art world to stop spinning, there couldn’t be a better time to acquire that long desired piece or to explore new perspectives for your collection, as now we all have the time to sit down and be soothed by our beloved artworks. Are these successful online sales and the will of cooperation within the art world the sign of a widely shared Dostoevskian hope that Beauty will save the world? We all sincerely hope so.