Sotheby’s: Online sales & technology transforming the auction house concept

A senior vice president at Sotheby's on the changing market for contemporary art.

Eric Shiner / Photo: Lyudmila Savelyeva, Strelka Institute

The rating agency artprice.com includes the Russian art market in the 5% “Other Countries” segment in terms of sales revenues for the first half of 2017 (the US is in first place at 32.4%). Despite growth in auction trade in Russia, significant changes are not expected anytime soon, primarily due to the lack of confidence in the art trade. Eric Shiner, however, is a clear example of the Western approach towards the art market as one of the most important and integral parts of the artistic process.

An American, Eric got his master’s degree in contemporary Japanese art in Osaka, and then continued studying at Yale University with the intention of getting a PhD. However, he chose museum work over an academic career. In 2011 he became the director of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburg. He left the museum five years later to take up a position as an expert and senior vice president of the contemporary art division at Sotheby’s auction house, and as a curator of one of the oldest art fairs in the world – the Armory Show in New York.

Contemporary art is the most controversial and interesting segment of the art market. The catalogues for contemporary art auctions in New York present a potential buyer with a plethora of unknown names in addition to famous ones. A curator of a global fair can not only set the tone for the art market but also to become a trendsetter.

Ulyana Dobrova, a Moscow art historian and head of the evaluation department at P.M. Tretyakov Independent Art Research & Expertise, spoke to Eric Shiner about the art market: how common forgeries are, why museums and auctions are equally important, and to what extent price corresponds to the cultural value of an artwork.

– You had a brilliant career in academia and museums. Do you regret leaving the museum world for the commercial world?

– No, not at all. I hugely enjoyed my time in academia and in the museum world, but it was time for a new challenge, and I simply love the fast-paced auction world. It is a true joy to be surrounded by clients and colleagues who are all smart, passionate lovers of art, just as it is fantastic to be in the presence of some of the most important works of art ever made on a regular basis. I’m also able to help promote artists that might not be currently celebrated in my work on artist estates, with a special focus on women and artists of color. That brings me very deep satisfaction.

Untitled, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1982. Price - $98,000,000 / Reproduction: rocor, Flickr.com
Vase of Chrysanthemums, Sanyu. Price - $8,274,999 / Source: culture.china.com
Bauerngarten, Gustav Klimt, 1907. Price - $52,275,000 / Source: wikipedia.org
The Sleeping Muse, Constantin Brâncuși, 1913. Price - $47,000,000 / Reproduction: rocor, Flickr.com
Leda and the Swan, Cy Twombly, 1962. Price - $47,000,000 / Reproduction: Sharon Mollerus, Flickr.com
Untitled, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1982. Price - $98,000,000 / Reproduction: rocor, Flickr.com

– When an auction house names a specialist in contemporary art to a leading post, it makes a particular statement about its politics. Artprice.com writes that the leading segment of the art market remains modernism – accounting for some 40 percent of the world market in terms of global auction turnover. Does Sotheby's see major prospects in the contemporary segment?

– Yes, by all means: contemporary art is a huge component of our business, and we expect it to grow, while remembering that modern art was once “contemporary” and that new forms of art making are yet to come. That’s very exciting. We also hope to start blending more of our sales to include exceptional works of art from a variety of time periods to replicate the way that many of our clients live and collect--with works spanning the history of human creation. Just last week, we announced that all Latin American art from the latter half of the 20th-century will be included in our regular contemporary art sales, a most exciting new course for us.

“We take great care in making sure that any Warhol we sell meets muster”

– You've combined work in an auction house with curating the Armory Show. Many believe that international art fairs have replaced auction houses as the main platform for the art market. Do you see auctions as an archaic economic model? Or will auctions (and the open publishing of their results) remain relevant?

– Art fairs are hugely important vehicles for collectors to buy works on both the primary and secondary market. More importantly, they allow galleries and artists to share their work with broad audiences who come from all over the world for the major art fairs, and with local collectors in the cities that host fairs the globe over. Auction houses will always play a critical role in the art market as open platforms for works to be acquired by the highest bidder. And yet, we are rethinking the very concept of the auction house, and we now call ourselves an art business thanks to the many innovative approaches that we are exploring to sell and promote art to both new and existing clients. Whether our increased focus on private sales, our use of technology to promote artworks and artists through social media, or our increasing focus on online sales, it is truly a dynamic time at Sotheby’s.

Half-yearly fine art auction sales

Source: artprice.com

– In 2011, the Warhol Fund concluded its work with Warhol's catalogue raisonne and ceased issuing certificates of authenticity. Do buyers and collectors trust assessments of authenticity for works outside the catalogue anymore?

– The catalogue raisonne is an ongoing project with at least two more volumes yet to come. The Warhol Foundation did stop authenticating work, meaning that provenance and bulletproof records of a given work’s history is critical. By all means, a huge amount of research is put into each Warhol work sold, and I can safely say that our clients can take comfort in knowing that we take great care in making sure that any Warhol we sell meets muster.

– Scholars have many methods for determining the authenticity of traditional media – texture, brush strokes, artists' signatures, even the form of models' ears. But how do you go about assessing objects that the author him or herself may not have even touched?

– If you are speaking about Warhol, it is a huge myth that he himself put forward that he did not play an active role in the production of his art. In fact, he was always present and working along with his studio assistants in the production of his work, so he had a hand in every work bearing his name. Of course, all artists oversee the production of their work, and today, some works are executed fully by studio assistants, but under the artist’s supervision and original vision for the work. It is, however, quite a rare thing, and we must remember that the great bulk of artists make their own work, or are present throughout the process. In all cases, proper documentation, receipts of sale, and other backing paperwork is important to trace the provenance of a work, so we all encourage collectors to carefully maintain these.

“The commercial and art historical value of various artworks can be radically different from one another”

– At Sotheby's, do you do full technical assessments of contemporary art or just cross-checking of provenance? Is forgery a major problem with contemporary art?

– We of course do both technical and visual checks and rigorous provenance research on all works that we sell. Forgery is an issue in all segments of art history, but I would say less-so with contemporary art, as records are much better for work made today.

Market share in global auction sales by period of creation

Source: artprice.com

– In Russia, for historical reasons, mixing art and capital is fraught. Cooperation between museums and commercial organizations is treated with major skepticism. Those in the museum world have little love for art dealers. Do major Western institutions such as the Met or MOMA struggle with this same ethical problem?

– I don’t believe it is a fraught relationship in America. I can safely say that all components of the art world are equally important for it to thrive and bring amazing works of art to the world’s attention. That requires artists, museums, galleries, collectors, academics, galleries, auction houses, critics, museum visitors, and countless others to all do their best possible work to promote and celebrate art, thus creating a huge and diverse organism that relies on all parts to function in order to survive.

– In your opinion, what is the relationship between the price of a work and its actual artistic value? Is the number of zeros at the end of a check equivalent to high marks from a critic?

– Not at all. We all know that some fantastic artists never saw commercial or critical success in their lifetimes, but did achieve such success decades (or more) after their deaths. In my own thinking, the commercial and art historical value of various artworks can be radically different from one another, yet when both segments converge to celebrate a given work, a masterpiece designation often follows.

“Politics in so many ways fuels the production – and even the reception – of art”

– Do museums still play the leading role in determining the cultural value of an artwork? Traditionally, when an artist's work was accepted into a museum collection, they would write it in their CV, and it would be seen as a major indicator. Is that changing?

– Most artists dream about having their work acquired by a museum, one of the greatest accolades that an artist can achieve, marking the ultimate validation of their vision, work, and perseverance. And yet, for the countless artists whose work is never bought by a museum, I feel that they can achieve success in so many other ways, whether it be through social media, press coverage, collectors supporting their work, etc. To that end, and thanks largely to social media, I think there are now more ways than ever for an artist to become known and celebrated.

Geographical distribution of auction revenues

Source: artprice.com

– How does the politics of a state affect the price of artworks from that country on the world market? Is there a link between international politics and the global art market?

– As artists often comment on the politics of their immediate environment, and as the political landscape of the world has been radically shifting over the course of human history, I think it is safe to say that politics in so many ways fuels the production – and even the reception – of art. Some of the greatest works of art have been made in direct response to politics, Picasso’s Guernica being perhaps the most famous. As politics affects economies, and as the art market is driven in so many ways by the economic health of a specific time and place, we can say that yes, there is of course a connection. And yet, thanks to the ever shifting realities of politics and place, so too is the art market morphing and changing, as is – and most importantly – the work being made to document and respond to these changes. It is in a constant state of flux, and that’s what keeps it interesting.