British auction house Christie's realized $340 million in sales during its 20th Century Evening auction Tuesday. But unlike the hectic, action-packed auctions of the past — this sale was conducted almost entirely online and over the phone.
"We're used to having people come here — 700 people come to the evening sale — bid, sit on uncomfortable chairs, still bid, and buy great things. Now they're sitting at home," said Alexander Rotter, chairman of 20th and 21st century art at Christie's.
The coronavirus pandemic upended the world of high-end art auctions. Much of the buying and selling, as well as the excitement of the events, previously occurred within the packed auction rooms. In order to work around restrictions imposed to stop the spread of COVID-19, Christie's had to rethink the format of its auction — a move Rotter said was a long time coming.
"I think what COVID has done to us, to many industries, but also to our industry, is it accelerated a process that we've been working on and pushing towards, but it kind of forced our hands," he said. "So what would have developed naturally over the next two, three, five years, especially from a technology perspective, was accelerated into three, four, five months."
Christie's live-streamed its auctions in the past, but never with much attention to what the viewing experience might be like. For its new, digitally-focused auction format, Christie's created a stream that the auction house hoped would feel like front row seats for the sale. The stream offered dynamic views of auctioneer Adrien Meyer, as well as of Christie's staff on the phone with bidders.
Christie's July sale, called ONE, which was the first in the new format, attracted considerable attention from first-time viewers. To make the experience more accessible to a novice audience, Christie's also added a pre-show panel and live commentary to its October sale.
"We had about 80,000 viewers in our ONE sale," Rotter said. "That's new to us, because, normally, there's as many people watching as can come to the saleroom...It exploded to the public."
The auction house also created a 3D viewing experience on its website for people who wanted to feel like they were standing in front of the available pieces, but wouldn't be able to actually make it out to Christie's Rockefeller Center showroom. The gallery is typically open to the public, but Christie's had to shift to an appointment-only model amid the pandemic, restricting the number of people that could come in to see the art.
But there was one lot that anyone could see. The star of the evening sale wasn't 20th century art at all. It was a 67 million-year-old Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, called Stan. Named after Stan Sacrison, the amateur paleontologist who discovered it in 1987, Stan is one of the most complete and most studied T. rex skeletons.
"The first T. rex skeletons were discovered at the very turn of the 20th century," said James Hyslop, head of science and natural history at Christie's. "So despite the fact that he is a 67 million-year-old monster, the identity and the fame of the T. rex is really born in the 20th century."
Hyslop was on the phone with the bidder who placed the winning bid — a whopping $27.5 million for a total selling price of $31.8 million including fees. The last T. rex skeleton at auction sold for roughly $8.4 million.
"This T. rex really is, in the world of natural history, a masterpiece as well," Hyslop said.
To show off the remarkable item, Christie's tore out a wall in its showroom to expose the bones to passersby. It's a change that likely won't remain post-pandemic, let alone after Stan leaves for his new home, but many of Christie's technological innovations will.
"Technology is the way forward with art. It just has to be a balancing act, because art was always something that also had this element of your own experience," Rotter said.