Sotheby’s Virtual Auction

Image of Sotheby's Virtual Auction

Sotheby’s is planning for a future where old-school, in-person auctions might be going, going, gone. The auction house unveiled a new livestream format for its flagship art sale on 29 June, selling high-ticket masterpieces to an entirely digital audience for the first time in its history.

Sotheby’s annual sale of Impressionist, modern and contemporary art typically takes place in front of a live audience in New York, New York, USA. This year, chair of Sotheby’s Europe Oliver Barker led the event from an empty room in London, England.

Reimagining the auction for an era of social distancing required some creativity—and extensive upfront planning. The project team spent one week constructing the London studio to support its idea for a “multicamera global livestream.” The team placed eight large screens in front of Barker’s podium so auction specialists from locations in New York, London and Hong Kong could bid in real time, like contestants on a game show, with works of art displayed on the back wall of the studio.

The team also recruited award-winning cinematographer Joel Mishcon to carefully choreograph the five-hour event—all of it streamed live on Sotheby’s website and on-demand news network Cheddar. A dress rehearsal held a few days before the auction helped the team plan for and respond to risks, such as a dead phone line or other livestream glitches. 

Being proactive paid off: The auction generated US$363.2 million, selling 93 percent of available art pieces. That included Francis Bacon’s Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus, which prompted a bidding war before settling out at an eye-popping US$84.6 million. That kind of performance should build confidence as the team adapts to the next normal, including another round of virtual sales in London at the end of July. Still, it marks a major shift: Just US$80 million of the US$4.8 billion that Sotheby’s hauled in last year came via the web.

Turning completely to streaming would have seemed unfathomable even a few months ago, Barker said. “But Sotheby’s was ready to pivot at a moment’s notice, and we redefined the boundaries of what is possible.”