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Virtual hammers and augmented auctions

Auction houses have already moved to a brick-and-click model with digital bidding. Could augmented reality be the next frontier?

Employees adjust a frame with a fragment of the Union flag, which flew from ‘HMS Victory’ at the Battle of Trafalgar, at a Sotheby’s auction in London last month. Photo: AP
Employees adjust a frame with a fragment of the Union flag, which flew from ‘HMS Victory’ at the Battle of Trafalgar, at a Sotheby’s auction in London last month. Photo: AP

The experience of art is unique and personal, as is the desire to own and live with it. Auctions are perhaps the most democratic and convenient platform for selling and purchasing art. It is important to understand that they fulfil a function quite different from galleries. Where art galleries represent and nurture artists and introduce them to collectors, auction houses offer a chance to acquire artworks by established artists and with interesting provenance. Increasingly, traditional brick-and-mortar auction houses are integrating online platforms into their models. In the “Hiscox Online Art Trade Report 2017", Hiscox and ArtTactic observed that online art market sales globally had gone up by 15% in 2016. “Everyone seems to agree that online auctions are important to the art world’s future," The Economist concurred in a 2016 article.

Yet it also seems to be a universally accepted truth that there is no equivalent to experiencing a work of art in person. Collectors often prefer to see and experience art physically by visiting galleries or studios, and remain resistant to making high-end purchases online. It is usually younger, tech-savvy collectors who take the plunge into buying art on the basis of images they have only seen online. Keeping these different profiles of collectors in mind, auction houses are vying to tap into the burgeoning online space while maintaining their brick-and-mortar spaces.

Auction houses with both an online and physical presence offer immense flexibility to collectors. In today’s fast-paced life, it is difficult to find time for gallery visits, or to spend quiet hours in contemplation before making a decision to bid for an artwork. Auction houses recognize the need for placing information in the hands of collectors, and go to great lengths to provide high-resolution images and create extensive databanks on the artworks, artists, provenance and price points. Their catalogues provide this information as well as catalogue notes that offer greater insight into the artist’s oeuvre. The information can be accessed anytime, anywhere—and previews and viewings offer the opportunity to experience a work in person.

As a result, collectors have plenty of data points. When millions of dollars are at stake, the credibility and transparency of the auction process establishes the market price.

Hugo Weihe. Photo: AFP

It is not always possible, of course, for collectors to attend viewings when auction houses are not in their locality. So some collectors, keen on the immersive experience that can only be offered by a personal interaction with the art, remain resistant to online purchases. One way this gap could be bridged is by considering the possibilities offered by virtual and augmented reality. Augmented reality could potentially change the way one views and interacts with a work of art. One could walk around a sculpture or painting, exactly as one would at a gallery or museum.

But the possibilities extend much further. Imagine being able to touch objects and artworks without restrictions! Being able to experience the tactile nature of various surfaces—oil paintings, watercolours, terracotta, bronze, stone—dramatically enhances the perception of art. With technological advances, it might be entirely possible to simulate auction rooms for those who cannot be physically present, or even for those who wish to be silent spectators.


Google has already announced plans to introduce augmented reality to websites, and it’s only a matter of time before auction houses embrace this technology. Major museums and galleries offer virtual tours, in which viewers can interact with works of art at their leisure. There have also been experiments with virtual salerooms.

That being said, most people would agree that nothing compares to the excitement of actually being in a live art auction room. But with further advances in technology, new collectors have much to look forward to, as auction houses continue to evolve and find new and more exciting ways to experience and buy art.

The writer, who has been in the auction space for 20 years, is chief executive officer of auction house Saffronart and was earlier the international director of Asian art at Christie’s.

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