Each of the world’s top four fine art auction houses has more than 220 years of service under their belt, and until a decade ago little had changed how they did business. Well, exactly how is new technology changing the auction world? Christie’s is the first major auction house that we’ll look at in order to answer this question.
“From top to bottom, inside and out,” said Marc Sands, Chief Marketing Officer at Christie’s. “I can’t think of an area in the company not impacted by new technology. This is a brick and mortar business coming to terms with the new world.”
While the 251-year-old auction house is looking at every aspect of its business, the main areas impacted so far by new technologies are: bidding, research, and relations with consignors and buyers.
A decade ago Luddite naysayers were legion, but online bidding is now mainstream, offered at roughly 98% of Christie’s auctions. In addition, bidders can watch an auction online from the comfort of home.
“In 2006, some thought these innovations were bad ideas, but experience shows it’s been a killer idea,” said Mr. Sands. “The past 10 years have seen more change than the company’s previous 241 years. Technology allows us to engage the global audience in ways not possible before.”
Precisely such technology has transformed Christie’s from an American and European auction house into a truly global player. Today, a billionaire can browse and buy from his/her mansion, say deep in Siberia, or on an island in the South Pacific.
Online buying, however, brings up the issue of verifying authenticity, especially since new technologies also allow greater opportunity for fraud.
“New technologies help to determine authenticity, for example, being able to study details with high-intensity imagery,” said Mr. Sand, citing the recent $450 million Leonardo da Vinci painting. “Much time and effort were done to prove that painting’s authenticity and technology helped us make the case.”
Christie’s is also expanding the role of digital marketing, making great use of social media such as Instagram, and it’s also forging partnerships with startups such as Artsy, the leading online seller of art. “Artsy brings in a new generation for us that might not otherwise come to Christie’s,” said Mr. Sand.
Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality are areas with potential, but it’s not yet clear how they can add value.
“Museums are ahead of us in VR and AR because they have exhibitions for maybe six months. Our pre-sale exhibitions last five or six days, so there’s little reason to make enormous investments into these.”
Finally, will new technologies disrupt the traditional auction house to the point where it’s replaced by something new? Mr. Sands is confident Christie’s can compete in the 21st century.
“At the end of the day, the validity of auction houses is based on the knowledge of what we’re selling, and that’s a premium. Ultimately, success is about our excellent specialists, and the trust placed in us from buyers and consignors. This knowledge base, as well as our global reach as a trusted brand, are key.”