A 102.39-carat oval diamond at Sotheby’s
A 102.39-carat oval diamond was sold for £12.1m at a Sotheby’s online auction © Angels Weiss/Getty Images

With a smartphone to hand as they walk down a street anywhere in the world, a collector can follow a livestreamed auction thousands of miles away in Hong Kong, as well as bid on whatever they desire.

It is a way of transacting that appeals mostly to the millennial buyer and is leading to a shift in the demographics of auction-goers, who are now tending to be younger and Asian. According to Christie’s, Asia has been the driving force behind its increase in millennial engagement — 47 per cent of all new buyers from the Asia-Pacific region are millennials, notably from China, Singapore, and Taiwan, alongside the US and UK. They are mostly attracted to Asian art as well as jewels, watches, handbags and wine. Forty per cent of new buyers of watches in Hong Kong this year were under 40.

Auction house apps may have been around for a while, but the disruption caused by the pandemic has accelerated fundamental changes in salesroom operations, with rapid growth in online sales. That includes sales of big-ticket items, such as the 102-carat diamond that was sold online by Sotheby’s Hong Kong last year for £12.1m — in what turned out to be a confident and shrewd move by the seller, given there was no reserve price put on the gemstone.

This shift to digital auctions appeals to the young and avoids the intimidating experience of walking into an auction in some grand ballroom. As a result, “newer clients are coming to understand the process and are less worried about buying at auction”, according to Graeme Thompson, Phillips’s head of jewellery. The technology means the way people can buy is much easier: they can look at Instagram and WeChat feeds and talk with specialists. “Live sales are still seasonal, but we have tripled the auctions that we are holding since 2019 because we are doing more online.”

Fabio Salini’s carbon fibre cuff
Fabio Salini’s carbon fibre cuff
Studio Renn’s Strangler ring
Studio Renn’s Strangler ring

There is now an auction virtually every month at Phillips: the current one is New Modernism, a private selling exhibition until next week. It features: avant-garde jewellery by Fabio Salini, who sets precious gems into carbon fibre; a diamond-set concrete ring by Studio Renn; and historic pieces by Modernist artists and designers such as Alexander Calder and Aldo Cipullo. Phillips also creates new high jewellery by partnering with up-and-coming designers, such as the young Chinese jeweller Feng J whom Thompson says, “speaks to a more art-buying type of customer”.

Similarly, coming up at Christie’s Magnificent Jewels auction, in Hong Kong, at the end of November are items that global managing director Aline Sylla-Walbaum says are favoured by young buyers: a 5.31-carat fancy intense orangey pink diamond ring with an estimate of $1.35m; a Himalayan flower pave-set sapphire brooch by Van Cleef & Arpels; and pearl and diamond drop earrings.

Van Cleef & Arpels sapphire brooch
Van Cleef & Arpels sapphire brooch
A 5.31-carat orangey pink diamond ring
A 5.31-carat orangey pink diamond ring

Bidding is now also done via Christie’s new WeChat account, launched in the spring, which experienced instant success with Chinese clients aged under 40, with 77 per cent take-up. As well as using WeChat — China’s dominant social media platform — Sylla-Walbaum says “we are the first international auction house to open an official account on Xiaohongshu, [a beauty-focused ecommerce and social media app] where we can create special content usually complemented with livestreaming, pre-recorded videos, eye-catching visuals and guides and tips on collecting.”

But auction houses still strive to strike a balance between maintaining the sophistication and appeal of buying in-person — something favoured by their established clientele — and making the process more accessible to a wider and more diverse demographic. “Our strategy and philosophy is to make the brand and experience a little more approachable without diluting the prestige and allure of purchasing at Sotheby’s,” says Josh Pullan, head of the luxury division at the auction house. As a result, Sotheby’s now has four times more bidders in their 20s and 30s than it did five years ago.

“We are doing this with collaborations specific to fashion [or] music, sports and other categories,” Pullan says. These have included sales of items from people such as the acclaimed film director Wong Kar Wai and Jay Chou, the K-Pop music star and art collector. “We want to touch people’s passion points and work with those who are storytellers but are collectors in their own right.”

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