Online art auctions are luring new bidders to the market: rich millennials under lockdown

Dominic-Madori DavisAug 4, 2020, 7:54 PM

  • Auction house Sotheby’s says that millennials helped it stay afloat in the first half of the year, as the pandemic has forced all auctions online, Kelly Crow of the Wall Street Journal reports.
  • Millennials now make up over 30% of Sotheby’s clientele, according to the auction house, and helped bring in a record $285 million in online sales.
  • On Monday, Sotheby’s reported $1.9 billion in the auction and online sales, down 30% from the year prior but not as bad of a dip as many were expecting.

File “high-end auctions”  under “Industries millennials haven’t been blamed for killing” — yet, anyway.

Young people have taken an interest in virtual bidding on contemporary art, luxury watches, and wine, according to Kelly Crow of the Wall Street Journal. Sotheby’s reported a 25.3% decline in art sales this year but notes the decline would have been much worse if it wasn’t for a surge in younger bidders.

On Monday, the auction house released its financial results, showing $1.9 billion in auction and online sales, which represents a 30.4% dip from the same period last year. At the same time, millennial buyers (who Pew Research Center defines as those born between 1981 and 1996) helped boost Sotheby’s online sales to $285 million in the first seven months of the year — which is triple the total of online sales from all of 2019. 

Now, millennials comprise over 30% of Sotheby’s clientele, according to the auction house. And as the pandemic keeps more people at home, even more millennials might find their way to auction house websites.

As Crow noted, auction houses have caught the eyes of many young bidders, especially by hosting auctions centered around popular personalities, like Sotheby’s recent Michael Jordan shoe sale. The auction house also partnered with Prada to auction items from the fashion house’s fall/winter 2020 collection to help raise money for UNESCO education projects.

Sotheby’s findings are in line with what some art insiders predicted already

Business Insider previously spoke to Lawrence van Hagen, an art curator known for his “What’s Up” pop up events, who said that the younger generation wants to buy their art online, rather than attend the traditional in-person art events and auction sales because it’s easy.

At the same time, online art platforms such as Artsy have also reported a massive uptick in site traffic, with Artsy CEO Mike Steib telling Business Insider that in April, the site saw a 200% increase in sales and that its online art fairs were seeing “20 times the traffic” that they usually saw pre-pandemic. 

“There is a new generation of buyers emerging. Over the next 10 years, trillions of dollars in wealth in the US is going to be inherited by a largely millennial and digital-native audience,” Steib told Business Insider.

“People used to walk around SoHo, go from gallery to gallery; used to get on a jet and go art fair to art fair,” Steib continued. “But they’re passing money down to a new generation who has never bought anything that way. Their expectation has been: you see something you love online, you click a button, then you own it.”

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