The first Christie’s auction livestreamed during the pandemic drew about 100,000 people, according to the auction house. Marc Porter, chairman of Christie’s Americas, recalled that the sale, in July 2020, featuring Impressionist, modern, postwar and contemporary art, was a simple production, shot with just one camera. But it helped “launch what is effectively now a Broadway show,’’ he said.
The big three auction houses have since hired production companies and added more channels, transforming these events into what Stewart of Sotheby’s calls “must-see TV,” borrowing the famous advertising slogan from NBC. (While Phillips, the smaller, boutique auction house, has not shrunk its salesrooms, it, too, has made its big auctions available on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and, in China, WeChat, Weibo and Red.)
The worldwide reception has surprised experts everywhere. From May 2022 to May 2023, views of Christie’s auctions rose 25 percent, from 3.7 million to 4.6 million, with 10 cameras now capturing the events. (These numbers do not include people watching auctions afterward on YouTube.) “We never expected these numbers,’’ said Bonnie Brennan, president of Christie’s Americas. “It’s the power of social media.’’
While the majority of those watching online are unlikely to have millions to spend on art — and buyers must register with the auction houses to bid — many end up perusing Sotheby’s and Christie’s websites, where they may discover something to buy at other price points, including watches, handbags and jewelry. “We see luxury items as a gateway to art,’’ Brennan added. “It’s about the democratization of access.’’
She added that while the actual number of buyers has remained steady, “the way they are buying has changed dramatically, with 80 percent of bids coming from online channels around the world.” Sotheby’s reported that 91 percent of its bids in 2022 were executed online.
Both say these buyers tend to be younger than the average collector. “They have the confidence that these digital tools are effective, and they feel more in control,’’ Brennan explained. Another major change: the number of collectors who are bidding on and often buying art and objects without having seen them.