“I think the younger art collectors,” Phillips CEO Ed Dolman says in the this ARTnews Live with Leaders interview (watch the interview on YouTube or listen to a podcast version in the player above), “found the transition to digital space and the ability to buy and transact online much easier than in others.” Since Phillips has a tradition of developing markets for emerging artists (who tend to be younger), the auction house has a strong following among younger collectors. All of these points, Dolman says, help explain why Phillips has increased its market share during the pandemic.
Phillips had already created a house focused on six collecting categories and built a digital-first strategy around bidding and broadcasting its sales over the internet. “So by the time the pandemic struck,” Dolamn says, “people were already able to watch auctions on their mobile phones at Phillips and actually bid directly into the rooms via their apps.”
Even for Phillips, digital only goes so far in explaining success. Phillips’s team of experienced specialists led by Cheyenne Westphal, Robert Manley, Jean-Paul Engelen, Olivia Thornton, and Jonathan Crockett “maintain relationships at the highest level with the same great collectors that our competitors do.”
Once dependent upon direct guarantees to induce consignors to choose Phillips, Dolman says the firm is in a different position now. “Quite often, these big consignments go down, or these big-ticket lots go down, to the financial deal and how your guarantee stacks up and how you can arrange the financing behind the deal. Nothing is stopping us from competing flat out at that area of the market.”
“Phillips has had a tradition of being very good at spotting where the market’s going,” Dolman points out. “We are pretty good, I think, at selecting the right artists at the right moment to seize the new taste changes that are going on. That’s what makes our brand and our proposition resonate so well in Asia, that’s what new collectors in that part of the world are looking for.”
Phillips’s strength in Asia has been buttressed by a new collaboration with Poly Auction, mainland China’s biggest firm. Even though Phillips already had strong ties to the region, through Poly, the auction house was, according to Dolman, able to “discover a completely new pool of bidders who really want to actively engage with us in the contemporary art market.” More bidders result in higher prices. It’s as simple as that.
“Our business in Asia,” Dolman says, “is very much focused on buyers and getting those buyers access to the best works of art that happen to be sitting in Europe and the United States at the moment. The pandemic, interestingly enough, almost supercharged this shift. We saw at Phillips all transactions with Asian clients grew by 30 percent year on year. Five of the top ten lots we sold went to Asia.”
Dolman doesn’t expect that process to slow down or reverse. “I think more and more significant works of art will be taken to Hong Kong for sale,” he says. “We’ve already seen that actually just in the last few months, that that the level of significant postwar American artists that have appeared in Hong Kong auctions now at high prices.”
“When Phillips joined the fray in Hong Kong with 20th century sales about five, six years ago now,” Dolman reflects, “we were actually the first auction house to genuinely mix Western contemporary art and Asian contemporary art in the same sale. We had sensed that that collecting community were no longer just collecting Chinese art.”
That demand has unleashed interest in consigning Western works to Hong Kong sales. The move that might have caused sellers some concern even a few years ago, but has now become a sought-after opportunity. “People want to sell now in Hong Kong,” Dolman says.