As the live-streamed Heffel Auction racks up millions in sales, are virtual auctions the future?

The revered Canadian painter Alex Colville’s exquisite “Dog and Bridge,” from 1976, annihilated its estimated auction value of $800,000 Wednesday night, selling after intensely heated bidding for $2 million. “Le reveil,” by French-Canadian lyrical abstractionist Jean-Paul Riopelle, sold moments before, for an impressive $1 million. An untitled work by Joan Mitchell leapt well beyond its estimation of $400,000, inspiring a furious bout of competing bids and ultimately scoring $975,000. Picasso’s “Tete de femme” was sold for $1,100,000. 

It was spirited bidding and princely sums spent all evening at the Heffel Fine Art live spring sale, featuring 112 works of art. And bidders acquired these paintings without even being present to see first-hand what they had bought. 

The Heffel Fine Art Auction House is the premier art auctioneer in Canada. Founded in Vancouver in the late 1970s by the art collector and dealer Kenneth Grant Heffel, it has coordinated the sale of more than half a billion dollars in Canadian art, more than any other auctioneer in the world, and has frequently set and broken sales records in this country for live auctions of Canadian art. Heffel’s annual spring auction is one of the most highly anticipated auctions of its kind in North America, generating several million dollars in sales and redistributing major pieces by such national luminaries as Jean-Paul Riopelle, Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven, on whose work Heffel first made its name as a dealer. 

But live art auctions — in common with most events that necessitate the gathering of large numbers of people in enclosed spaces — have been restricted by the coronavirus pandemic, and this year art-buyers did not descend as usual on the conference rooms of the Park Hyatt to commence paddled bidding. Instead, bidders logged on to their computers, as the Heffel Fine Art Auction House’s spring auction was conducted entirely online. Private collectors, galleries and curators alike joined the broadcast from the Historic Trading Floor at the Design Exchange in Toronto to spend millions on art remotely.

The art world has suffered alongside many other culture and entertainment industries in the pandemic, as many dealers have spent these last four months reluctant to sell and collectors reluctant to buy. However, while sales are down on the whole, especially at auction, several high-profile digital auctions have made one thing abundantly clear: people are much more comfortable buying art online than originally assumed, and even once COVID is behind us, live-streamed auctions may be here to stay.

Heffel’s auction live-stream was surprisingly thrilling stuff — an engrossing sale that faithfully replicated the drama of the real thing. David Heffel, president of the Heffel Fine Art Auction House, was a deft and amusing auctioneer, fielding bids from the traditional phone lines and from assistants relaying bids from the internet with ease. “Bidding on the internet?” he frequently enquired of the socially distanced admins on the sidelines, offering buyers in the digital sales room a little latitude in timing to make sure they kept up. As Ivan Kenneth Eyre’s “North Hills” tripled its estimated value of $40,000 to sell for $120,000, Heffel seemed palpably relieved that the whole operation was running so well. “Web’s working great,” he exclaimed, almost astonished to find it was true. 

The art world has adapted to virtual auctions with remarkable alacrity. Sotheby’s, the world’s preeminent auction house, held its annual contemporary art auction at the end of last month as an entirely virtual event, and it could hardly have been more successful. Sotheby’s called it “a marquee auction;” the art historian Brian T. Allen, writing in the National Review , described it as “the future of the auction business,” a “fascinating” event that was “part old-fashioned auction, part variety show, part telethon, all with the sparkle and edgy feel fo Election Night.” 

Assuaging concerns that bidders would be reluctant to spend large sums on art they could not physically inspect or view — as well as anxious speculation that COVID-19 might inspire conservative bidding — several high-profile paintings were sold by Sotheby’s for considerably more than their house estimates. Francis Bacon’s Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus , estimated at $60 million, was sold for $84.6 million. The late Canadian contemporary artist Matthew Wong’s Realm of Appearances , estimated at only $60,000, sold for $1.5 million. 

Sotheby’s did much to make up for the change of plans. In lieu of a printed catalogue, the auction house offered a robust virtual one, replete with comprehensive info about the art on auction and links to related works and historical context. Bidders were invited to speak with representatives from Sotheby’s over Zoom for consultations and to ask questions about the art on offer. They’d also developed an augmented reality program that allowed people to imagine what various pieces of art might look like hanging in their home — a flourish of future-tech that points the way forward for interior design in the age of social distancing. 

The Heffel live auction didn’t have anything as sophisticated as AR, but it did offer bidders the opportunity to explore its galleries remotely before the auction. On their website, Heffel hosted e-catalogues and PDFs, as well as the more elaborate “virtual tours,” which opened in a separate browser window and allowed users to navigate the gallery spaces by clicking through to move around, as if really in the space. These kinds of online by-proxy tours are not an entirely satisfactory substitute for visiting the galleries in person and actually examining the art. But for bidders, they were evidently good enough to feel okay spending millions of dollars. 

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