The auction room at Phillips was filled with so many chattering people on October 10 that employees had to shush them just so you could hear the auctioneer. This wasn’t a typical auction. A typical auction is a quiet affair at which you can buy a selection of secondary market work (art objects that have have been sold at least once before), thus they’re of little interest to struggling artists.
But Paddles On, curated by Lindsay Howard and presented in partnership with Tumblr, was unique—and not just because of the noise. It was the first digital-art auction, and also the first in Phillips’ history to sell exclusively primary market work. The only other comparable contemporary example was the 2008 Damien Hirst sale at Sotheby’s, which made a bit more money—$198 million as opposed to Phillips’ $90,600—but for something so untested, insiders have guardedly judged its take positively.
Steven Sacks, the owner of bitforms gallery in Chelsea, said that while he thought the auction was a wild success for artists that weren’t well-known, “financially, it’s more difficult to say.” Nine of the 20 lots sold for less than their estimated bids, and four of those were bought-in by the auction house. “Obviously, the numbers weren’t through the roof,” Sacks said.
But Phillips was extraordinarily happy with the auction, its head of sale, Megan Newcome, told me. And by its metrics, that’s not just PR. “We were very clear-eyed about this: no matter what the results are, if we’re able to bring these artists to a mainstream audience, then the auction is a success,” she said. About this there is near unanimous agreement. “This auction was great for opening up people to digital art,” art consultant and collector Myriam Vanneschi told me. (Full disclosure: Vanneschi once bought a digital portfolio from AFC.) “For the collectors that I work with... it takes me a lot to even get them to consider digital art. Because the auction took place at Phillips, a big name and brand in the art world, it gives them some sense of assurance.”
And it was helped by Phillips’ decision not to take a cut of the sales. Instead, they donated 20 percent of the auction’s revenues to the digital media non-profit Rhizome. “There are trust issues with auction houses, but that wasn’t an issue here because they didn’t get any money,” Vanneschi said.
The rationale behind individual purchases was predictably varied. “I’m very proud of purchasing Molly Soda, which is an hour-long performance,” Vanneschi told me. “I think it’s good to consider buying things that aren’t necessarily objects.” Benjamin Palmer, the CEO of the Barbarian Group and a self-described “medium serious” art collector with his wife, was similarly excited about his purchase of Rafael Rozendaal’s website ifnoyes.com. “It’s fun that it was the first website sold. But more than that, it’s the most accessible piece of public art I could have purchased.”
That kind of altruistic collecting was not unusual. Julia Kaganskiy, the founder of #artstech, told me she purchased the works of Silvia Bianchi and Ricardo Juarez simply because she wasn’t familiar with them. “And it was in my price range,” she added. Like many in attendance, she was there to support the artists in the auction.
Much of this suggests that the emerging digital art collector community may have broader interests than investment, and perhaps it indicates a greater shift in the market place—that Phillips could now be in competition with galleries. But Sacks downplayed that concern. Phillips brought in a benefactor for this auction, so without a profit, it’s not competing. “It’s definitely a competitor if an auction house starts to do this on a regular basis,” he said, going on to explain the different roles of galleries and auctions. “The auction is a culmination of the gallery’s work,” Sacks said. “The value of the work is contingent upon an artist’s exhibition history, provenance, and the collections they’re placed in. If you remove that element by selling exclusively through the auction house... the whole system breaks down.”