The Virtual Salesroom

Michael Coiro
Alexandria
Published in
5 min readJan 27, 2021

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Last year on June 29th, Sotheby’s hosted a double feature of action: the sale of Ginny William’s esteemed collection followed immediately by the Contemporary Evening sale. These sales proved to be the litmus test that the art world needed to realize that the top players in the art world are still willing to spend the money needed in order to acquire the works. In the process of doing so, Sotheby’s has opened the virtual floodgates and expanded opportunities for art to be experienced, bought, and sold during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The success of the Sotheby’s sale was fueled by the energetic personality of auctioneer Oliver Barker, who at certain points during the auction became visibly excited by the ping-ponging back and forth of bids between New York, Hong Kong, and London. He also showed incredible poise throughout the slight delays in latency caused by digital technologies between the different geographies participating in the sale. This is a key for online auctions moving forward; the auctioneer has been elevated from the status of referee or timekeeper to the face of the sale, and indeed the vitality of a sale (and thus, the number of bids on lots).

The prolific collection of the late Ginny Williams prioritized mid-20th century female artists such as Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler, and Joan Mitchell. The sale helped usher in a new auction record for Frankenthaler; her large color field canvas Royal Fireworks sold for $7.8 million.

Helen Frankenthaler, Royal Fireworks, signed and dated 1975 on the reverse acrylic on canvas 60 by 157 in. 152.4 by 398.8 cm

The sale of two Joan Mitchell canvases Garden Party and Straw highlighted a continuing trend in the value of the artist’s work over the past few years, as both works surpassed their estimates by over a million dollars.

JOAN MITCHELL, GARDEN PARTY, signed; signed and titled on the stretcher, oil on canvas, 64 ¾ by 51 ¼ in. 164.5 by 130.2 cm. Executed in 1961–62.

The evening sale featured several new records for both the online format and individual artists. Jean-Michel Basquiat’s drawing Untitled (Head) hammered at $13.1 million, simultaneously setting a new record for a work of art sold online, and giving the art world the Litmus test that they needed in order to know that buyers are still in the market despite the logistical and economic difficulties imposed by the virus.

JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT, UNTITLED (HEAD), oilstick, ink and acrylic on paper, 29 ¾ by 22 in. 75.6 by 55.9 cm. Executed in 1982.

Francis Bacon’s Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus sold for an eye-raising $84 million, but the real highlight of this sale was the almost fifteen-minute-long bidding war between Sotheby’s Head of Contemporary Art Grégoire Billault and an online bidder from Asia. Each time Billaut’s bidder raised the price by a million dollars, the online bidder would counter with a 100,000 bet of their own. This bidding war shattered the record for the highest bid placed online in an art auction at $73.1 million.

FRANCIS BACON, TRIPTYCH INSPIRED BY THE ORESTEIA OF AESCHYLUS, signed, titled, dated 1981 and variously inscribed on the reverse of each panel, oil on canvas, in three parts each: 78 by 56 in. 198 by 147.5 cm.

Christie’s “ONE” sale that was held on July 10th took a slightly different approach to this new question of how to facilitate auctioneers within the sale. Christie’s elected to have one auctioneer for each city represented in the auction: New York (Adrien Meyer), Hong Kong (Elaine Kwok), London (Jussi Pylkkänen), and Paris (Cécile Verdier). The four auctioneers were keen to make sure that their representatives’ bids were heard and registered. In the beginning of the sale, it was clear that some of the system’s kinks needed to be worked out, mostly due to juggling four different time zones, currencies, and video screens all at once.

Early on in the sale, it appeared as though Christie’s website had reached capacity. In order to facilitate those that were actively bidding from their screens, a YouTube live stream of the auction was started. At one point, over eighty-thousand people were tuned into the auction, either by actively bidding or viewing the live stream. By expanding access to the auction, Christie’s emphasized the “event” nature of the auction, one of vigor, intensity, and theatrics that was certainly headlined by the different personalities of the four auctioneers. This harkens back to the genesis of the fine art auction first seen in the late eighteenth century; instead of two hundred people packed into a small room raising paddles and battling for prices, we now have an especially expanded digital room of not just established collectors, connoisseurs, and dealers, but moreover new and younger people that are quickly becoming interested in the growing contemporary art market.

In terms of the sale itself, the total rang in at $42o million. The top sale came in through Roy Lichtenstein’s late work Nude with Joyous Painting from 1994 which sold for $46,242,500.

Roy Lichtenstein (1923–1997), Nude with Joyous Painting, 1994. Oil and magna on canvas. 70 x 53 in (177.8 x 134.6 cm). Sold for $46,242,500 in ONE: A Global Sale of the 20th Century on 10 July 2020 at Christie’s in New York.

The next top seller was Barnett Newman’s Onement V, which sold for $30,000,000. While Christie’s believed that this big ticket item would spark an intense bidding process, the work’s relatively quick sale showcases a type of control that the upper echelon of high net-worth individuals have on the market.

Barnett Newman, Onement V, oil on canvas 59 5/8 x 37 ¾ in. (151.4 x 95.9 cm.) Painted in 1952.

The sale, and its digital format, also showcased a mixing of mediums, eras, and genres, including the first sale of a photograph in an Evening show, typically reserved for the mediums that will fetch the highest prices (paintings and sculptures). Richard Avedon’s Dovima with Elephants sold for $1,815,000 after a whirlwind of international bids.

Richard Avedon (1923–2004), Dovima with Elephants, Evening Dress by Dior, Cirque d’Hiver, Paris, 1955 gelatin silver print, flush-mounted on linen, mounted on aluminum image/sheet/flush mount: 80 x 63 ½ in. (203.2 x 161.2 cm.) secondary mount: 86 x 70 in. (218.4 x 177.8 cm.) Executed in 1979. This work is number nine from an edition of ten.

Ruth Asawa also broke her previous auction record with her work Untitled (S.401, Hanging Seven-Lobed, Continuous Interlocking Form, with Spheres within Two Lobes), which sold for $5,382,500.

Ruth Asawa, Untitled (S.401, Hanging Seven-Lobed, Continuous Interlocking Form, with Spheres within Two Lobes) hanging sculpture — enameled copper and brass wire, 78 x 15 x 15 in. (198.1 x 38.1 x 38.1 cm.) Executed circa 1953–1954.

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