Sotheby's Record-Breaking $400M Virtual Art Auction 'Changed the Game,' Says CEO

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July 2, 2020
Sotheby's first foray into virtual high-end art auctions ended with several records smashed, suggesting the art industry may be ready to adjust to a world changed by the coronavirus pandemic. 
"Over the course of two days, we sold well over $400 million of art, and we saw very strong depth of bidding from around the world," said Charles Stewart, CEO of the famed auction house.
A notable chunk of that total was attributed to the sale of Francis Bacon's Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus, which had been estimated to sell for between $60 and $80 million prior to the event. The piece sold for more than $84.6 million, escalating beyond the estimate despite the lack of in-person bidding.
"We all know the psychology and the excitement of that bidding experience," Stewart said. "That was certainly very true on Monday night in New York, and we saw that with the Bacon. So, that was very exciting, and it's quite an extraordinary result, that's for sure."
Photo courtesy: Sotheby's/Julian Cassady PhotographyPhoto courtesy: Sotheby's/Julian Cassady Photography
The winning bid on the Bacon piece went to an anonymous buyer on the phone, according to the Sotheby's CEO, who also explained that most of those bidding in its auctions do not disclose their identities. However, he did note that one high bidder for the Triptych was from China.
"Those were the highest online bids ever received for a piece of art, and to have that come from a Chinese bidder, I thought, really showed the globality of the overall market," he said.
Photo courtesy: Sotheby'sPhoto courtesy: Sotheby's
Two additional records also were made during the virtual auction as well when Jean-Michel Basquiat's Untitled (Head) sold for $15.2 million, a high watermark for both works done on paper and for online auctioning. Stewart noted that the piece had been hanging in the Sotheby's gallery for two weeks drawing high praise, but the auction house wanted people who couldn't view it in person, due to the pandemic, to also get a chance to see it. 
"We were able to replicate a lot of that experience for people who couldn't come to the gallery, for all of the reasons, using our digital tools, which is another aspect of this auction that was so innovative," Stewart explained.
Overall, the online auction set 14 records in sales for the artists featured, according to Sotheby's CEO, and with the success of the sales of so many masterpieces, he expects the virtual bidding to continue.
"This is very groundbreaking in so many ways. We had our largest-ever audience. I thought the auction worked incredibly well from a visual perspective. The production values were excellent," Stewart said. "This, I think, really changed the game for art auctions going forward."
Sotheby's Auction House is owned by Patrick Drahi, who is also Chairman of the Board of Cheddar's parent company Altice USA.
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