Live-Streamed Auctions: A New Way of Bringing Trophy Art to the Masses

Live streaming is slowly but surely becoming an essential component for art auctions due to the nature of our times. Doron Fagelson explores the new possibilities this technology brings to the horizon for the art industry.
9 min read
11/08/21
All articles
By Doron Fagelson
Vice President, Media & Entertainment
Share
Live-Streamed Auctions: A New Way of Bringing Trophy Art to the Masses

Introduction

It is that time of year again when the buzz around prestige auctions excites and captivates the art world. They rank as global VIP events, and tickets are usually required to attend the marquee auctions: limited entry has always been an essential part of their underlying business model. This is where some of the most prized art works on the market become available to a few select collectors and dealers, and just having an opportunity to bid on them, whether from the auction room in person or remotely by phone, confers status and creates excitement. In the words of art market expert Don Thompson, "In London or New York, evening sales are a place to be seen, an indicator of social distinction – whether or not you have any intention of bidding."

Auction results for the current Fall auction season suggest the allure of evening auctions remain strong. Sotheby's contemporary art evening auction on October 14th, the first live session at their New Bond Street location in two years, exceeded expectations and included a record for the artist Banksy, prompting auctioneer Oliver Barker to declare, "It's great to be back!"

At the same time, the auction sales model is evolving. During the last eighteen months, as social distancing norms took hold around the world and hobbled in-person events, the live-streamed auction phenomenon came into its own and turned the playbook auction business model of limited access to exclusive sales events on its head. Live-streamed auctions during the period have seen record numbers of attendees, giving them more of the quality of a grand sporting event than a private rendezvous for art world VIPs.

Auction Rooms or TV Studios?

Sotheby's contemporary evening auction sale featured some 200 people in the New Bond Street rooms. By contrast, according to the latest Art Trade report from Hiscox, more than a million combined viewers watched Christie's live-streamed marquee week sales in 2020 through its website and social media channels. The Economist noted Sotheby's viewing audience for their first live-streamed global art auction last June was five times the average for major evening sales. Hiscox asserted with a slightly hyperbolic flourish that "Live streaming has transformed auction sales into a spectator sport."

While many live-streamed viewers are not there to bid but are merely passive observers drawn to great art or to the thrill and suspense of an auction process conducted by a dynamic and skilled auctioneer like Oliver Barker, the potential of the live-streamed format to not only reach new audiences but to recreate the excitement of live evening auction sales on a vastly larger scale, is hard to deny. Live-streamed art auctions in the Internet age have emerged to be a powerful engagement tool for attracting broader audiences and new collectors, especially among the younger demographic.

Digital Tools Come to the Fore

Other notable advantages give live-streamed auctions merit over the traditional kind. Live streaming relies on digital technologies to achieve greater heights in reach and scale than traditional auction sales. This takes their future potential value beyond the benefits of mere engagement and outreach, as companies look to innovate and experiment with online sales formats. Some leading technologies have already been applied to live-streaming by auction houses to improve the overall user experience and make the format more interactive for remote participants. And as newer and better digital technologies come to bear, live-streamed auctions will continue to evolve in ways we might not yet even imagine.

For one, live-streamed auctions can attract a healthy dose of online bidding. As reported in the Art Newspaper, during Sotheby's live-streamed auction last June, a Jean-Michel Basquiat drawing sold for $15.2 million, in what Sotheby's said was the highest successful online bid in its history.

Self-autonomy is a distinctive element of online bidding, such as the ability to make advance bids, place bids for multiple lots at once, or set up bidding thresholds through an online account, without the need for an intermediary. The online bidding format is simpler, cheaper, easier to administer and more scalable than conventional auction bidding.

The live-streamed format also presents opportunities to incorporate and experiment with newer, more innovative technologies to the benefit of both auction buyers and sellers. Christie's has, for example, used augmented reality to allow remote buyers to see how a painting might look on their wall or sit alongside other works they own. They have also leveraged a recent technology known as "super zoom" to allow viewers to inspect the minute and intricate details of a work. And both Sotheby's and Christie's have improved their digital tools to help sellers to consign works for auction; the former upgrading its online consignment tool to ease the process of adding information, and the latter enhancing an online portal to manage contracts and consignment information.

The Biggest Technological Obstacle, Streaming Latency, and How to Avoid It

The Internet was not originally designed for hosting auctions. Latency is an inherent and unavoidable part of the system. When your software sends a request to a server, it must travel hundreds or sometimes thousands of miles to reach its destination. The server then needs to send that request to the auction platform, where the process repeats for the response.

Online gamers have been dealing with this issue for nearly as long as the Internet has been around. Latency causes a delay in how quickly a player receives information in a video game, and how quickly they transmit information to other players. Low latency can ruin their experience and affect whether they win or lose.

For live-streamed auction viewers bidding on lots, the problem manifests as "bidding latency," which means placing a bid in time to win an item but not having the bid reach the auction house in time for the win to register with them. Reducing bidding latency is critical to the success of streaming auctions; auction house Bonham's made it a core focus of their tech development efforts.

Thankfully, there are some steps that auction houses and customers alike can take and some technological advancements that can help minimize latency problems and optimize the live-streamed auction experience.

Getting the Best Settings

To ensure as smooth a transaction as possible, both the auction house and the customer should make sure they are on a solid Internet connection. The ideal Internet connection will have a low latency measurement. Latency can be measured with online speed tests. You will find your connection's latency under the ping test. An excellent ping time will be under 30ms. Average pings are between 30-50ms.

Once the Internet connection is squared away, the auction house hosting the video feed will want to tweak its settings for minimum latency.

  1. Framerate – Each frame takes time to reach its destination, increasing the chances that latency issues will pop up. Although today's high-end monitors can handle extremely high framerates, that is overkill for an auction. Streaming at a framerate of 30fps will provide a nice balance of quality and decreased latency.
  2. Resolution – The size of the picture also plays a role in how fast it can be delivered. If you have ever turned a YouTube video up to the highest resolution when your connection was less than optimal, you may have experienced stuttering. Online auctions do not need to be presented in 4k. Limiting the resolution to 720p or so will help keep things running smoothly even with sub-optimal Internet connectivity.
  3. Bitrate – The bitrate of a video stream is the number of bytes that make up each frame. A higher number of bytes will result in a crisper image, and a lower number of bytes will add noticeable compression artifacts. If the bit rate is higher than your Internet connection's upload speed, the video will lag. To be on the safe side, bitrates should always be set significantly lower than Internet upload speeds.
  4. CDN – Content distribution networks are a great way to reduce latency. Rather than serving the stream from a single server, CDNs spread the load over multiple servers that are located at various locations around the world. When a user connects to the stream, they will be served from the server closest to them to reduce latency. This is how popular streaming sites such as Twitch and YouTube work, and this approach can be used to cut down the time it takes a customer bid to reach the auction house by routing the bid through the server closest to the user.

Conclusion

The recent success of the live-streamed auction format – in combining the excitement of the auction room with the convenience, reach, and utility of online tools – is one more example of how the art auction business continues to adapt to the needs of a rapidly changing, socially distanced world with the help of technology (see my article on their investment in e-commerce ventures). These transformational changes are altering the art auction sales model and rippling out further into the art world. Other players in the art market are taking note of the power of live streaming: this past summer, mega gallery David Zwirner launched a global live-streaming event called "Program" that treated viewers to a tour of their galleries in New York, London, Paris, and Hong Kong. It is an exciting time to be an art collector, especially one who relishes watching the spectacle of prestige evening auction sales from afar.

Sign Up for Updates!

Subscribe now to receive industry-related articles and updates

Choose industries of interest
Thank You for Joining!

You will receive regular updates based on your interests. No spam guaranteed

Add another email address
READ MORE
Sign Up for Updates!
Choose industries of interest
Thank You for Joining!

You will receive regular updates based on your interests. No spam guaranteed

Add another email address
Welcome
We are glad you found us
Please explore our services and find out how we can support your business goals.
Get in Touch Envelope