The value of a dinosaur

While we are used to seeing dinosaurs in nature museums, last week a T-Rex appeared at an art auction. What's the connection between a dinosaur and art and what is the significance for the future of art auctions?

A 67-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton was sold at Christie’s last week, alongside artists such as Picasso, Cezanne and Rothko. The giant dinosaur, lot number 59, closed the sale of Christie’s Twentieth Century and broke all preliminary estimates, selling for $ 31.8 million – four times the estimated price. The last dinosaur of this type was sold in 1997 for only $ 8.4 million. The T-Rex is named after the researcher who discovered it in 1987. It rises to a height of 4 meters and a length of 12 meters and was sold by a geological institute in South Dakota in the United States, where it was discovered and exhibited and researched in the last two decades.

Aside from the excitement from this marvelous prehistoric relic, the interesting question to ask is what is a dinosaur doing at an auction of twentieth-century art. The official response is that it was discovered in the 20th century and that dinosaurs still impact our culture. But the real reason is to do with marketing and it actually paid off.
The Corona pandemic has created some major disruptions in the auction world, and this is a good opportunity to analyze them.

Competition and collaboration

A bit of background: The international auction scene is dominated by the duopol Sotheby’s and Christie’s, which were founded in the 18th century. Competition between them intensified over the years, as art prices rose. After all, the art market rolls in about $ 67 billion a year and at least half of that amount is traded at auctions. The competition is especially great around rare and quality works.
In recent decades, new practices have emerged as a result of the competition between Sotheby’s and Christie’s, centered on a safety net for the seller, which guarantees him a pre-determined minimum amount no matter what. The higher the auction house guarantee, the better the works it manages to attract.

The Sotheby’s-christie’s duopol not only competes but also collaborates. This is reflected in the timing of sales across the calendar. There are pre-set dates for sales in different parts of the world and so it is found, for example, that in May and November, the important sales of the two auction houses (and others) are concentrated in New York. The idea is to attract collectors to a cluster of events. In perfect coordination, Sotheby’s and Christie’s alternate in the premiere – once Sotheby’s will go first and the next time  Christie’s – anything to maximize the purchasing power of the collectors. The timing of sales also coincides with major art fairs, also powerful magnets that attract art-loving audiences with great buying potential. Thus, for example, in October, the important sales of contemporary art are held in London during the Frieze Fair.

Another important thing to know about auctions, relates to sale categories. Over the years many categories of sales have been established, again, to attract as wide an audience as possible. Beyond the fact that art is just one of many categories including watches, jewelry, antiques, wine, musical instruments and even luxury homes – the category of art is also divided. The main categories in the field of art refer to the period of creation from the Old Masters, through the 19th century, the first half of the 20th century, under the heading of modern art and the second half of the twentieth century to the present, under the heading of contemporary art. There are even more internal divisions that can be seen here.

Breaking boundaries

The Corona epidemic has put auction houses in turmoil for several reasons:
1. They have had to switch to a virtual model.
2. The traditional auction calendar has become obsolete as no physical events are happening and collectors are not flying.
3. Uncertainty also affects people’s willingness to spend money on things that are not necessary.

Auctions are public events and that is the secret of their success. The suspense, the drama, the competition – these are the ingredients of this successful psychological game. How can this be transferred to the online virtual realm? These were my thoughts in early July, after Sotheby’s first virtual sale. When you change a platform, other things must also change. This is why Zoom schooling isn’t working… It is not possible to copy a frontal classroom practice to Zoom. New teaching methods need to be developed.

To solve collectors’ main problem with virtual sales- the fact that they do not see the art being sold, Christie’s has introduced some innovations: a life-size poster of the work can be ordered before the sale, so that the collector can hang it at home and feel its presence. Sometimes the works themselves travel to major auction centers in the world such as London / Hong Kong / New York. Another option for those digitally inclined, is the possibility to see the work virtually on the wall, using augmented reality technology.

Digital success

This was Christie’s’ second virtual sale. The first was held in July and apparently disappointed Francois Pinot, the company’s owner. So for the sale that took place last week, a creative agency was hired, that designs real-life (IRL), virtual and hybrid experiences. The concept chosen was hybrid, and so, before the sale, there was a conversation between Christie’s president Marc Porter, gallery owner Jeffrey Deitch and journalist Melanie Gerlis. Although they all seemed to be sitting in the same space, it was the result of another technological gimmick, with Melanie broadcasting from London and Jeffrey from elsewhere in New York. They talked about the state of the art market and the adjustments required on account of the pandemic and also about some works from the sale. When the conversation ended, the broadcast went directly to the sale itself, which was broadcasted simultaneously  on Christie’s website, Facebook, YouTube and for the Chinese – on the wechat network. The role of the audience was played by dozens of Christie’s representatives in New York, London and Hong Kong, all talking feverishly on their phones as if competing with each other. I would recommend to drop the “commentators” who performed a kind of unsuccessful narration in moments of tension and gave more of a sense of a sporting event than an auction. Dramatic music was played whenever there was a pause in the sale. The pace was good and the tension was maintained all the way to the peak – the sale of Stan the dinosaur.

Why put a dinosaur in a twentieth century art sale? Yet another border that was breached but, albeit, not for the first time. In November 2017, a painting by Leonardo da Vinci – Salvatore Mundi was sold in a sale of contemporary art. As you may recall, the painting, which has since raised much controversy, has become the most expensive artwork in history, selling for $ 450 million. As for the dinosaur, Christie’s representative calls it innovation. Everyone is trying to attract an audience and increase revenue and this time it really worked. According to Christie’s, 280,000 people watched the sale on the various platforms. This is a huge number compared to the amount of people that attend the physical salesroom.
The twentieth-century sale grossed $ 341 million. This means that even in these difficult days of uncertainty, people still want to purchase art as well as dinosaurs, even though we still do not know who the buyer is – probably some museum or a collector with a very large house….

The need for personal connection

Finally, the main thing missing of course, is the personal, physical networking, which is such an important part of art events. Maybe Christie’s and Sotheby’s will be inspired by Tony Robbins, the personal growth guru, who developed a technological alternative to the huge events he does in front of thousands of viewers – a 360 degree screen, on which he can see his audience in a virtual event. Not that collectors always want to be seen raising their hand at auctions but most of the audience is passive anyway so this is the missing link right now. That way people will be able to dress nicely and look their best on screen, as if they were in the salesroom.

Tony Robbins' virtual event

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