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Diary of an art historian

Auction houses have finally entered the Amazon age—and I’m addicted

I thought I’d kicked my online art and antiques buying habit but too much lockdown screen time has been my undoing

A few years ago, individual auction houses had clunky websites, but now even the smallest auctioneer boasts a professional online presence Photo: PxHere

I thought I’d kicked my online auction habit when I stopped being an art dealer, but too much lockdown screen time has been my undoing. Auction websites like Drouot Digital are only ever a click away, and they make it so easy to browse, and dream, and sometimes even bid. I’ve been impressed by how well auctioneers have continued to operate during the pandemic, and each day there are dozens of new catalogues to scroll through. In my quest for bargains I sit at the computer like one of those chickens in an experiment, pecking the right button, hoping for a treat.

Very occasionally my meagre bids win the day, but my tendency to lose reflects how many bidders are now prepared to buy art purely on the basis of digital photos. Auction house websites have brought art and antiques into the Amazon age, and, as with so much else, the pandemic has turned a growing trend into the norm. A few years ago, individual auction houses might have their own rather clunky websites, but now even the smallest auctioneer can boast a high standard of online professionalism. Only the object and how it is presented are important; where it is being sold and who is selling it don’t matter as much as they used to.

All of which obviously has significant implications for the art market. For the first time, we can begin to imagine a purely online auction world, with no need for printed catalogues, in-person auction views, or expensive premises in central London. While it may be some time before Oliver Barker, Sotheby’s star auctioneer, conducts sales from a warehouse in Birmingham, or even his kitchen table, we will surely see many more online-only sales in the future.

In the middle of all this comes the Brexit deal. I struggle to see how the UK art market will flourish in this new era. London’s dominance of the European market rests in part on the free movement of art within Europe, as well as the prestige of showing work in London itself. But the former is still under threat, while the latter, in a world of online sales, might soon lose its relevance. Consignors in Europe may look to Paris to sell works more easily and cheaply. Perhaps here we should remember that both Sotheby’s and Christie’s are now French owned. The UK government has committed to retaining the Artist’s Resale Right, the abolition of which was seen as a possible Brexit win for the art market.

All of this makes for continued anxiety ahead for my friends and former colleagues in the London art market. They have worked tirelessly to nurse their businesses through the pandemic. I wish them the best of luck for 2021. And if you’re a collector, keep bidding.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper, 330 January 2021