Lessons on Livestreaming

What Luxury can Learn from Auctioneers


As livestream retail exploded in China in 2020, a similar innovation was underway in an unexpected corner of the Western economy: art auctioneers.


Live-stream shopping in China, fronted by online celebrities, doubled last year to an eye-popping 1 trillion yuan ($153 billion), Fitch estimates. Consumers confined to their living rooms and driven by deep discounting snapped up everything from cosmetics and clothing to cars, carpets, toothbrushes and doorbells. Livestream queen Viya even sold rocket launches to her 37 million-strong audience.


In the West, meanwhile, the world of auctioneering leapt a decade into the future. In-person auctions in wood-paneled rooms in London, Paris, New York and Hong Kong were replaced by star auctioneers selling by video stream to the stuck-at-home wealthy. They bid online or by phone, not just for works by Picasso and Cezanne, but for items including a 67-million-year-old dinosaur named Stan.


Auction houses tripled the number of online auctions of items including sports stars' sneakers, handbags, vintage watches and pink diamonds. Global online only auction sales from the top auction houses, Sotheby's, Christie's and Phillips, soared sixfold in 2020 to $1.05 billion, according to ArtTactic, an art market research firm.


These two seemingly incongruous markets -- one driven by Chinese bargain hunters, the other by the world's wealthiest consumers -- share more in common than first meets the eye. Both tapped into pent up demand from a younger generation of consumers happy to shop on smartphones and with a desire for interactivity, as well as the adrenaline-rush-excitement of buying scarce items. Sotheby’s said that more than 40 percent of bidders and buyers for its online sales were new and that the number of buyers under 40 doubled.


Here are four lessons from the auctioneers:


-mix genres: Instead of individual auctions for separate categories on different days, Sotheby’s mixed the sale of a vintage car, jewelry, handbags and watches to attract a wide sweep of viewers, a formula it is likely to continue to adopt, according to Sotheby's Pedro Reiser, deputy director, watches, Switzerland. Blending Old Masters with contemporary artists in its Rembrandt to Richter auction attracted bidders from 47 countries.


-join forces: Sotheby’s Masters Week took in $161 million this year, double 2020 proceeds, mainly driven by the $92.2 million sale of a portrait by Renaissance master Sandro Botticelli. The livestream auction of nearly 600,000 views presented a marketing opportunity for Bulgari, which partnered with Sotheby’s to promote its Barocko collection. This included a livestream talk with an art historian and Bulgari’s jewelry creative director.


-viewers-to-buyers: An online bidder placed a showstopping $73.1 million bid for a Francis Bacon Triptych in the highest ever recorded online bid however the average lot price of online-only sales was a more modest $20,693. Both Christie’s and Sotheby’s added AR tools to showcase what the artwork would look like at home. Sotheby’s added a “buy now” e-commerce platform to allow consumers to browse and buy items outside of auctions, such as jewelry or watches.


And finally - meet innovation with tradition: The top houses built television-style sets so bidders and viewers could see the high drama of the auctioneer fielding bids as they came in online and as house specialists took bids on old-fashioned phones. Sotheby’s even hired stylists to coordinate some team members’ outfits with the art.


Illustration: Roy Lichtenstein’s “Nude with Joyous Painting” sold by livestreamed auction at Christie’s for $46.2 million in July.


Go Deeper

Millennial Buyers Help Global Art Market Survive the Covid Pandemic: Wall Street Journal


Auctioneers Bid to Clone Live Experience: Financial Times


How Sotheby’s is curating luxury experiences for millennials: Daniel Langer in Jing Daily