Marc Porter of Christie’s on COVID-19’s Permanent Impact on How Art Is Bought and Sold

Porter predicted that the resumption of estate sales in the fall could answer a lot of questions about the state of the art market overall.

Mary von Aue and Marc Porter in conversation via Zoom. Observer

On Friday, Observer hosted the third entry in our Business of Art webinar series, which has served as a forum for industry professionals from many different facets of the art world as they reckon with, adapt to and look beyond the coronavirus pandemic. Editorial director Mary von Aue led today’s conversation with Marc Porter, the chairman of Christie's Americas division and a keen analyst of the issues shaping the art market. Porter explained that the auction world had already begun to put significant effort into facilitating digital sales before physical spaces became unsafe, and that online auctions will likely continue to be essential indefinitely: “Needing to be together and needing to be with the works of art is critical for things to return to normal, but the transactional method I think will change forever.”

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The immediate challenges posed by the pandemic haven’t diminished people’s desire to admire and acquire art: if anything, the opposite effect is unfolding. “Our collectors are very, very focused on their collections and adding to and refining their collections, because they’re thinking about them more,” Porter said. However, the present suspension of live auctions has led to a “dislocation in the market” created by the current absence of estate property sales, many of which have been postponed until the autumn of 2020. “What has absolutely been put on hold is the sale of significant numbers of estates, and that will return in the fall,” Porter said. “I think that augurs well for a rather large volume of art sales after the summer, and really the release of the pent-up pressure answering a lot of questions about where the market is exactly.”

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While Porter doesn’t anticipate a categorical shift in terms of what will come onto the art market in the future, the eventual return of estate sales in a couple of months can reasonably be depended upon to imbue potential buyers with enthusiasm. Additionally, Porter pointed out that Christie’s has scheduled four times as many online sales between now and June as it had in the previous year: the auction house is certainly anticipating market fervor to be robust, even given the temporary absence of estates.

For the moment, digital programming and messaging has become even more essential to Christie’s than it had been in the very recent past. “This pandemic has forced us to lean on the tools that we’ve been building over the past few years in a much more profound way than we ever would have expected,” Porter said. “Over the past few years, we’ve seen the decline in our publishing and the necessity of creating such important catalogs. I happen to have started in the book department, and I’m a great fan of the printed and the written. However, the content you can create on digital is so rich. We’ve seen even our more experienced collectors are very happy engaging with us and using digital material to learn.”

Reading and making purchases online may be fair game, but the installation, handling and shipping of art is not yet universally safe. Until business is once again chugging along per usual, the bonds fostered by those within the art world have proven to be extremely resilient. “One of the most interesting things about this lockdown has been how much closer relationships have become, both with our colleagues and with so many clients,” Porter remarked towards the end of the webinar’s duration. “People are much more open, and the human contact has been amazing.”

Marc Porter of Christie’s on COVID-19’s Permanent Impact on How Art Is Bought and Sold