Is it becoming slightly passé to attend an auction in person, however highprofile the lots may be? The answer may well be ‘yes’.

The nascent trend in the world of high end auctions, as in so many other disciplines, is to go digital.

According to the 2015 edition of the Hiscox Online Trade Report, the online art market reached US$2.64 billion in 2014, a 68 per cent rise year-on-year, and could reach US$6.3 billion in 2019.

It’s still a drop in the ocean – online buying accounts for about five per cent of the US$55.2 billion global art market, and much of the online commerce is less than US$15,000 an item, which upmarket auction houses have spurned, in order to maintain their high-value image.

But a trend is in place. Hiscox says that “art buyers are becoming less dependent on the physical gallery or auction house… there is an increasing level of indifference between the channels that collectors want to use when buying art. Going forward it will be critical to offer potential art buyers a choice of channels when acquiring art.”

Digital disruption is The age of disruption hitting auction houses, where dealing with data – except for the cash register takings – has conventionally been overlooked. Auctioneers are becoming digital information managers.

In 2010 Christie’s hired Steven Murphy as CEO to implement its digital strategy. His background was in publishing and music but he espouses the digital world. Interviewed by the Financial Times in September last year, he commented: “We did research that showed our customers were living half their life, if not more, with online experiences. Even our multi-billionaire clients who were highly interested in art and objects were personally going online to study them. The imperative was clear: we needed to create a digital version of the Christie’s experience in a platform-agnostic way.”

Not to be outdone, Sotheby’s has hired David Goodman as its new digital and marketing chief. Goodman joined the auction house from the Madison Square Garden Company, where he was the president of productions and live entertainment.

Last year Sotheby’s and eBay struck a partnership which saw live-streaming auctions start in April this year. Christie’s followed suit by buying the online collection management platform Collectrium. Christie’s increased its number of online auctions from seven in 2012 to 49 this year. It even has an app that allows you to bid live from tablets and phones.

For Fru Tholstrup, director of S2, Sotheby’s contemporary gallery space, “Instagram has become indispensable. It allows me to introduce collectors to previously unseen and unknown works of art, through shots taken on studio visits to the gallery, and has led to sales in a number of cases.”

But the inability to physically inspect a work remains an issue. Hiscox says: “In 2014, 82 per cent of online art buyers (up from 78 per cent last year) say the biggest challenge when buying art online is the fact they are not able to inspect the work.

In a similar vein, those worried that the artwork may appear different from its representation online has risen from 64 per cent to 74 per cent year on year.” But as digital technology becomes more immersive this problem will also diminish.

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