Auction Houses Adapt to Serve the Next Generation


Sotheby’s, Christie’s and other auctions houses are adapting to serve the next generation.

Auctions today are facing up to the fact that while the older audiences have traditionally supported them are still vital, their survival hinges on looking to the next generation. “It’s absolutely critical, essential,” said Jussi Pylkkanen, Christie’s global president and principal auctioneer. “The next generation of artists and buyers and people who are inspired by, and interested in, the art world is absolutely critical to us.” With interests as diverse as their upbringings and culture, these young collectors are changing the way auction seasons are shaped. Unlike their predecessors, they often do not come from families that collected art, or even possess more than a surface understanding of the art world. They may discover a painting through social media and spend thousands, perhaps even millions, on an item without having ever set foot in an auction house.

The ability to view lots, watch videos, download condition reports and bid online has helped to break down real and perceived barriers to auction houses. For Phillips, approachability has meant rebranding: shrinking catalogs and emphasizing essays in the hope of creating a more magazine-like experience; making advertisements more colorful and using accessible language. Overcoming a stuffy, exclusive image is a concern across the board. Over the past two and a half years, bidders have come to Christie’s sales site from 90 countries, and 44 percent of all new bidders have been under the age of 45. Items in online sales at Christie’s and other houses have fetched seven figures. This is why so much of the auction world is focusing on social media and online tools like apps and videos, as well as working with e-commerce sites like eBay and Artsy.