Online auctions drive art world to new heights

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Online auctions drive art world to new heights

From Albert Einstein's notes to a record-breaking Frida Kahlo to a 6.6 million-euro triceratops auction houses, a string of record-breaking items have recently gone under the hammer and through the roof.

Valuations are hard to judge.

The Einstein manuscript went for 11.3 million euros $13 million in Paris on Wednesday, five times its expected price.

A storyboard for the failed 1970s film version of Dune sparked a bidding war that pushed the price 100 times above the valuation to 2.7 million euros.

Market watcher Artprice credits the transition to online sales with new levels of interest, particularly in the US and Asia.

The auction houses were very behind the times. Covid forced them to modernise, and the result is that online sales have been spectacular and have attracted a new audience, said Artprice founder Thierry Ehrmann.

Many dynamics are changing, he said, giving the example of 30somethings who prefer to collect art rather than buy their first home.

After an initial freeze in 2020, online auctions exploded later in the year as millions were hunted for new ways to kill time and spend money during lock downs.

With stock markets soaring in the pandemic, the rich got richer while struggling to find ways to spend it.

This has helped push the old masters to new heights.

In New York this month, a Van Gogh went for $71.3 million and a Kahlo self-portrait set a new record for the Mexican artist's work at nearly $35 million.

It has also created a hunger for almost anything collectable, from Michael Jordan sneakers $1.5 million to an original copy of the US Constitution $43 million to an 800,000 bottle of Burgundy wine.

Auctions have become a predominant form of selling at a time when many art fairs can't happen in person and online viewing rooms are awful, according to Anna Brady, art markets reporter for The Arts Newspaper.

Brady highlighted the infusion of cash from a new source, namely,Crypto-millionaires.

They have expanded from an initial focus on digital art - such as the mind blowing $69 million paid in March for a JPG file by one of its pioneers, Beeple, into more traditional tastes.

Justin Sun has bought works by Picasso and Andy Warhol this year, and paid $78.4 million for Alberto Giacometti's The Nose sculpture this month.

Sun then caused a lot of harrumphing among stuffed shirts of the art world by boasting about his purchase on Twitter - breaching their traditional codes of secrecy and discretion in a way that suggests an even more competitive market to come.

It's a question that's been raised before, especially in the 1980s when the art market looked in danger of overheating under the pressure of a new generation of yuppies trying to flash their cash.

Despite several cooling-off periods - including the 2008 financial crash and a sharp drop between 2015 and 2019 -- the overall trend has been skyward.

Artprice says the contemporary art market has grown from $103 million in 2000 to $2.7 billion today.

Buying and reselling has become more natural: to refine one's collection, or because of a divorce, or because our tastes have changed, said Ehrmann.

The uber-rich own $1.45 trillion of art and collectables in 2020, according to Deloitte.

For these people, Ehrmann said there is no psychological barrier to paying more than a million dollars for something online.