Watching Art Auctions — Voyeurism or a New Avenue to Learn?

Over the course of what was a difficult and unimaginable 2020, I read many articles and had a multitude of conversations with top collectors, gallerists, and auction house executives. I have heard about how sales are down with the disappearance of the in-person art fair and the restrictions on being able to travel to visit a gallery. I repeatedly heard that people are still buying and selling art — albeit often more discerningly — and that doing business required adapting to a new digital modality. None of these changes were surprising given the new realities we are all adapting to.

There was, however, one development in the art market that truly surprised me, and I am still contemplating its implications. Specifically, I was blown away to learn that between 500k and 1 million viewers (it varies depending on who you speak with) logged in to watch the evening contemporary art auctions of the major houses — Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips. While it is natural to envision the contemporary auctions drawing the largest audiences, that may not necessarily be the case as Sotheby’s Winter Masters auction drew 1.3 million viewers worldwide.

Is art collecting now becoming a spectator sport? Only a minute fraction of the viewers are able or willing to forgo $25 – $40 million for a work by Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, or Cy Twombly, let alone a Francis Bacon for almost $85M. Forget about the top lots; even paying the average price of almost $7 million for any of the 45 lots in Christie’s October evening auction is beyond the reach of all but a small, yet growing, set of global collectors.

Is this massive spike in viewership attributable to a newfound voyeurism within the art market or is there something deeper going on? Is a sizable group of collectors and would-be collectors using these events as a unique opportunity to learn? Given the never-ending plethora of streaming options, it is hard to imagine that anyone who wasn’t seriously interested in art would devote an hour or two to watching an art auction. These viewers had to consciously go to the auction house’s website and log in to watch the proceedings. At a minimum, this means they are passionate enough about collecting that they’re willing to take time out of their day to view an auction they aren’t actively participating in.

I might understand the spike in viewers if they could watch business icons, celebrities, and the ultra-wealthy compete for the chance to pay seemingly absurd prices for a piece of canvas — but that is not the case. The bidders are anonymous and there is not much excitement in watching auction house representatives stand around with phones to their ears, covering their mouths like an NFL coach on the sideline who prevents anyone watching from interpreting the play being called. Absent the spectator sport voyeur interest, the only logical conclusion I can deduce is that there is a large and growing global population that is serious about wanting to collect meaningful art. This trend is supported by the fact that at Christie’s recent Hong Kong Evening sale, 25% of the buyers were new customers and over 20% were Millennials. I believe people are watching the auctions to learn.

The contemporary art auctions — evening and day sales — often lend valuable insight into how the market is thinking about certain artists, movements, trends, and what defines a masterpiece at a particular moment in time. Watching the auctioneer go through lots can be telling about whether a particular artist, period of their work, or a movement in general is in demand or out of favor. For example, over the last several years it’s crystal clear there has been strong demand for great works from top female Abstract Expressionists like Joan Mitchell and Lee Krasner.

One of the clear trends this fall has, not surprisingly, been the insatiable appetite for important contemporary Black artists. This was clearly evident when Amy Sherald — a 47-year-old African American portrait painter — had a 2015 work with a high estimate of $200,000 attract 20 online bidders and sell for almost $4.3 million including buyer’s premium. Similarly, Amoako Boafo, a 36-year-old Black artist, had a 2019 painting with a high estimate of $195,000 and realized almost $1.2 million.

Observing this trend might very well inspire collectors to search out other important Black artists — both those who are established and those who are currently under the radar but undeniably important. It’s quite possible that seeing this interest might spur collectors to research and acquire works within the category by artists such as Sam Gilliam, Howardena Pindell, Jack Whitten, Beauford Delaney, Chakaia Booker, and Joe Overstreet. While not yet household names, these artists have decades of work and are featured in major museum collections like MOMA, the Met, the Whitney, the Tate, and The Art Institute of Chicago (to name but a few).

Auctions also provide a phenomenal opportunity for current and aspiring collectors to efficiently see a wide variety of works curated by auction house experts. While each auction varies slightly in its composition, a viewer is generally able to see great examples of a broad array of movements and regions. The ability to see a wide variety of high-quality works in an efficient manner can be incredibly valuable in refining your preferences and maybe even identifying future aspirations. For years, visiting big contemporary auction previews provided one of the most productive means to refine our tastes, pique our interest, and define our aspirations. I still vividly remember being mesmerized many years ago while standing in front of Yayoi Kusama’s large white painting from the late 50s, which then hung on display at Christie’s Rockefeller Center showroom. This ignited our interest in collecting Kusama and similar artists and is not a unique experience.

I believe the surge and continued growth in auction viewers have clear positive implications for the art market’s future — there is a growing pool of collectors eager to learn. This assessment would seem to be supported by the fact that there are now websites that allow collectors to practice the equivalent of paper trading stocks. No longer are art auctions a club for the anointed few lucky enough to be invited. The effect of widening the audience will democratize the art market and make it accessible to anyone irrespective of their pedigree or connections. This broadening combined with instant access to once-unthinkable amounts of information, images, and price data may very well transform the art market. Already, we see major works being purchased for high prices by new and unknown collectors, a stark contrast from typical art collectors who take years to wade into the industry.

It’s hard to imagine art auctions haven’t changed forever — they will now incorporate a hybrid virtual model and entertainment aspect to massively expand participation and viewership. These developments will have a positive long-term effect on the art market. Driving efficiency and liquidity is ultimately good; however, it will mean the process will become harder and maybe even more competitive. I am curious to see how the auction houses respond and evolve.