Old-Guard Auction Houses Are Embracing the Future

Aiming to attract younger collectors, Christie’s is launching two new departments focused on NFTs and streetwear—a major step forward in legitimizing two often devalued categories within the staid art market.

Christie’s 3.0

Christie’s almost single-handedly brought non-fungible tokens (NFTs) into the zeitgeist when the venerable auction house sold a controversial digital art piece—Everydays (The First 5,000 Days) by Beeple—for an eye-popping $69.3 million. Not only did the spectacle jumpstart an NFT bonanza, it legitimized a long-overlooked cadre of digital artists often devalued by the old-guard art market machine. “Not unlike the advent of street art as a blue-chip collecting category, NFT-based art is on the threshold of becoming the next ingeniously disruptive force in the art market,” Noah Davis, the former Christie’s specialist who spearheaded the sale, said at the time. The house played a pivotal role in bringing NFTs to the fore, even inviting designers like Misha Kahn to experiment in the space. 

So it may seem surprising that Christie’s hasn’t launched an official department dedicated to crypto-based digital art until now. This week, the auction house announced Christie’s 3.0, a platform allowing for NFT sales to take place entirely on Ethereum’s blockchain. It even centralizes requisite taxation and compliance tools, which were formerly mired in a confusing tangle of crypto tech and 20th-century bureaucracy. The new department can be seen as a direct result of the Beeple sale, which allowed buyers to transfer Ether to Christie’s directly from their digital wallets, and the recent Ethereum merge that reportedly drops the cryptocurrency’s carbon emissions by 99.95 percent. It’s a moment of reprieve for the languishing NFT market, whose trading volumes have collapsed 97 percent this year alone.

“I Am That I Am ” (2022) by Diana Sinclair. Image courtesy of Christie’s

The platform kicks off with an auction of nine NFTs by artist-activist Diana Sinclair, whose socially conscious work—which includes curating the Juneteenth NFT art exhibition “Digital Diaspora” and a collaboration with Whitney Houston’s estate that sold for $1 million—led Fortune to recently name the teenager one of the NFT space’s 50 most influential people. “Christie’s making this first step as a global auction house is a huge message to the rest of the centuries-old art market that digital art and blockchain technology is a legitimate form of expression,” Sinclair told Artnet News. “As a young artist, and especially one who grew up seeing artists in my family being dismissed over discrimination, I feel strongly about being part of a moment that indicates a greater shift in the arts.” 

Further fueling that shift is the debut of Department X, a new Christie’s arm focused on streetwear, sneakers, and other collectibles befitting the hypebeast crowd. The move gives Gen-Z must-haves (Air Jordans, Supreme skate decks) their own category alongside Impressionism and the Old Masters, with online auctions and private exhibitions taking place throughout the year. Overseeing the department is Caitlin Donovan, Christie’s head of handbags, who predicts it will attract younger collectors who gravitate toward the images and culture they grew up with. “We go for what tugs at our past experiences and heartstrings,” she told CNBC. “So for these collectors in their 30s and 40s, it’s a celebration of their culture.”

Nike Unreleased Air Jordan VI Donda West Sneaker. Image courtesy of Christie’s

It’s also smart for business. At its current rate of growth, the sneaker market is expected to be worth $95 billion by 2025—and longtime rival Sotheby’s has already made moves there. Two years ago, the house auctioned a pair of Nike Air Jordan 1s worn by Michael Jordan during his 1985 rookie season with the Chicago Bulls for $560,000—the priciest sneakers ever sold. Before that, Sotheby’s oversaw a marquee sale of 100 rare kicks with streetwear marketplace Stadium Goods. The success of both sales compelled Sotheby’s to venture into streetwear in December, attracting a younger demographic who likely can’t afford Warhols or Picassos. 

“We‘ve watched the classic luxury departments start incorporating these elements of sneaker culture and streetwear through the leadership and the guidance of people like Virgil Abloh and Kim Jones, who have come into these really storied, iconic fashion houses and brought in this influence,” Donovan says. “We’ve seen it across jewelry departments and our timepieces department and it really made sense as I was watching this market grow and grow that Christie’s would follow suit, because not only do I see this as a very expansive and important department to grow into, but also these collectors are serious and educated.”

And if we needed any further proof that old-guard auction houses are starting to look ahead, Sotheby’s recently enlisted art-world shitposter Hilde Lynn Helphenstein—a.k.a. @jerrygogosian—to curate a sale of works by emerging artists recommended to her by Instagram’s Explore tab. Ahead of the sale, she posted a video announcing that Sotheby’s would be renamed Hildeby’s and she’d soon implement absurd policies that cheekily troll staid art-world machinations. 

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