Yesterday’s first digital art auction at Phillips may have just taken the crown for being the most memorable contemporary art auction for me since Damien Hirst’s auction at Sothebys in London the day Lehman collapsed in 2008. I was there. It was wild. So was yesterday.
Even with my skepticism (Why use the same economic model? Is going mainstream a certain death knell?) and the fact that the group of collectors I work with rarely buy at auctions (too much hype, too much competitiveness, too much emotion, artists don’t benefit, trust issues with auction houses), this was an auction I was looking forward to.
Artists were getting 80% of proceeds and part of the remaining amount was going to arts nonprofit Rhizome. It also felt like an important event — like we were part of history in the making. There was a piece by Alexandra Gorczynski, who is high up on my list, and it was a beautiful piece. It was all good.
So after discussing this with a collector I was to bid on their behalf on Gorczynski. Excitedly I registered and picked up my paddle. I was also a little bit nervous because to me, this was not a small amount of money.
I sat down on row three and looked around me to see how many paddles were there. The room wasn’t quiet like they are at most auctions. A few rows behind me a guy loudly proclaimed he was going to bid on everything. The man beside me turned to me and asked me what I was going to bid on. I said I didn’t know and asked him the same. “Probably everything, but definitely the pieces you are bidding on — whatever you’re bidding on, I’ll bid over you,” he said.
The auction had begun by then and my piece would soon come up. Who was this guy? Was he serious? Should I take that chance? I ducked and left my seat to go to the back of the room where I could see him but he couldn’t see me. He didn’t bid over me, but somebody else did. I noticed he did bid on another work and spotted him much later arguing at the check-out desk. And I don’t know if it was because of him or the general buzz but I went over the maximum I had set for myself — I walked away as the proud owner of a work by Molly Soda.
I had never expected anything like this at an auction, but then this wasn’t an ordinary auction. It was almost rowdy at times. And things got so exhilarating that when a group of women met each other IRL for the first time in the bathrooms, they started screaming with excitement. There was an incredible buzz, with or without the trolls.
These were, however, not the only reasons why this auction was memorable. It reflected, as curator Lindsay Howard stated, an essential shift in contemporary culture. And I hope that, with this, it will take on challenges that come with it. While there is nothing wrong with this auction, I also hope that we will look at different models to invest in art, perhaps invest in experience and not necessarily in objects. And artists should remain fearless like there is no art collector or auction house looking over your shoulders.
Still, of course digital art can come to the auction house. But those trolls should remain squarely on the internet.
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