Sotheby’s New Gen Art Program Will Use an Old Dutch Auction Format

A series of works by 99-year-old generative artist Vera Molnar will be sold using a centuries-old format, kicking off the auction house's latest digital art initiative.

For the past three centuries, Sotheby's has largely stuck to the traditional English auction method—ascending bids, with the highest bidder winning. But the auctioneer is changing it up this summer as it goes Dutch for a series of generative art sales.

Outside of Sotheby's building, blue flag with Sotheby's logo hangs from white building
The centuries-old auction house is trying something new next month. Jeff Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Sotheby’s will use the “Dutch auction” format for its new Gen Art Program—a series of sales highlighting long-form generative art. The digital works, created with the help of algorithms and machine programming, will be sold in descending price auctions. Dutch auctions begin at a fixed price ceiling and work backward, with the lot going to whoever places the first bid.

The format takes its name from a sales method used by Dutch flower traders and was notably used by Google (GOOGL) when it went public in 2004. “Dutch auctions add a new psychology to the traditional auction format, incentivizing bidders and setting a new model for price discovery,” said Sotheby’s in a statement.

The auction style is also the preferred format of Art Blocks Engine, a generative art technology company whose platform will be integrated by Sotheby’s for its new program. Dutch auctions are widely used by non-fungible token (NFT) platforms, as the fast-paced nature of sales let marketplaces sell large quantities of lots quickly.

Spotlighting generative art pioneer Vera Molnar

Vera Molnar, a 99-year-old Hungarian generative artist, will kick off Sotheby’s Gen Art Program with her July 26 sale. Considered a pioneer of generative art and the first female artist to incorporate computers in her work, Molnar began experimenting with computer graphics in the 1960s and co-developed the “Molnart” software program alongside her husband. “Vera Molnár is one of the undisputed legends of generative art, whose decades of experimentation with the form has paved the way for what we know of today as algorithm-based digital art,” said Michael Bouhanna, Sotheby’s Head of Digital Art & NFTs, in a statement.

Elderly woman sits at desk in art studio
Vera Molnar at her Paris studio in 2011. Catherine Panchout/Sygma via Getty Images

Molnar, whose work often explores randomness and letters as abstract forms, held her first solo exhibition more than 50 years ago in London. More recently, she was selected as an artist for the 2022 Venice Biennale. Her upcoming Sotheby’s sale, Themes and Variations (which will be held on the blockchain via Sotheby’s Metaverse), will offer 500 unique algorithmic pieces. Playing on the forms and compositions of the letters N, F and T, Molnar’s series was produced with the help of generative artist and coder Martin Grasser and will have a ceiling price of 20 ETH ($37,000).

“After decades of exploring how systems and computers can generate artistic outputs, I see this collaboration with Sotheby’s and Art Blocks as a culmination of those efforts, providing a new way to generate never-before-seen, unique abstract forms that are defined by the controlled randomness of machine programming—the essence of the algorithm,” Molnar said in a statement.

Following Molnar’s sale, Sotheby’s Gen Art Program will spotlight two or three artists annually. Similar to the upcoming sale, the auctions will be conducted on the blockchain, with bidding and payment using the Ethereum cryptocurrency.

Sotheby’s New Gen Art Program Will Use an Old Dutch Auction Format