Artsy Asks: What Galleries Need to Know about Auctions

Artsy Asks: What Galleries Need to Know about Auctions

The Artsy Asks Series

Experts answer the most important questions for galleries today. 


Shlomi Rabi, Artsy’s VP of Auctions, is a 20-year veteran of the auction world. Previously, he held the position of Vice President at Christie’s and Head of Sale at Phillips, and founded the social-impact auctions platform Greenhouse Auctions. He is intent on championing and empowering underrecognized creative voices in the art world.

Shlomi Rabi, Artsy’s VP of Auctions.

Collectors today are aware that online auctions are a common, reliable, and trusted way to discover and acquire works of art. Yet until a few years ago, they were viewed rather negatively in the art world—regarded as the “stepchild” of live auctions where only low-demand works were listed.At the time, the prevalent misconception among collectors was that in order to acquire art competitively and discerningly, you’d need to see the work in person.

After the pandemic forced the art world, including auctions, to move online, this perception changed. In addition to the ease that comes with bidding online, auctions as a whole have continued attracting collectors for their price transparency, their democratic approach to participation, and eclectic offering of in-demand artworks from sellers around the world.

We sat down with Artsy’s VP of Auctions, Shlomi Rabi, to discuss how auctions can provide galleries with greater visibility, expand their collector base, and help them make meaningful sales.

What are the benefits of participating in an online-only auction?

Online-only auctions retain the infrastructure of traditional auctions, such as competitive bidding, democratic participation, and sell-by date, but have no costly add-on costs, such as insurance or handling fees.

Artsy’s Impact and Spotlight auctions are specifically designed to empower and benefit the gallery and the artist alike—the only such auctions in the art market. While both are driven by social impact, the Impact auctions consist of several participating galleries, each providing up to five works of art by their roster of artists, with prices ranging from $2,000–$100,000. The Spotlight sales involve artists offering a single artwork in a single auction and benefitting a single cause.

The flexibility of online auctions allows us to tweak the process to meet the needs and values of our gallery partners. For instance, we hide the final result so that it has no effect on the primary market asking price—whether the work sells at auction or not. We also introduce the buyers to the gallery after the auction, which encourages long-term relationship building between galleries and collectors.

What sort of impact can an auction have on an artist’s career?

Auctions are the most public commercial barometer indicating the rise of an artist and can solidify their demand.

That said, introducing an artist to the secondary market is an art form that requires coordination and timing, which rarely happens in your average brick-and-mortar auction house. However, for Artsy’s Impact and Spotlight auctions, we conduct global marketing campaigns that are sometimes paired with social posts, editorial content, and all sorts of exciting marketing features designed to attract the largest possible audience.

This gives artists and galleries unparalleled exposure, and introduces them to a new collector base that they might not have had otherwise. This is a radical difference from the standard auction house, which utilizes the artist to attract a new audience for their own gain, leaves the gallery out of the profit, and could by nature disrupts the provenance of a given work of art.

How does Artsy curate auctions?

Artsy is the only marketplace that offers distinct primary-and secondary-market auctions. On the secondary market, our seasonal Artsy auctions offer the best from Post-War, contemporary, and emerging artists. We work with private collectors and, at times, fellow art industry professionals who appreciate the limitless possibilities for an in-demand artist on the open market.

Our primary-market auctions are specifically designed for our gallery partners, and are meant to be the safest possible way to introduce an artist to the auction market—without any of the risks associated with auctions. This is an excellent opportunity for galleries to share a hot artist with the larger market and attract a new collector base to the gallery’s program. Additionally, with both types of auctions—primary or secondary—we fold in a nonprofit beneficiary, so that the act of collecting art becomes an act for social impact. And while we’re on the subject, we continue to hold benefit auctions with our beloved nonprofit partners across the world.

The galleries we collaborate with for auctions typically offer works by emerging, in-demand talent (especially in our Impact auctions) or established Post-War and contemporary artists (in our secondary-market auctions). After the gallery submits works for review by our specialists, a member of our auctions team will work closely with the gallery to guide them through the process, which includes signing our standard contract and submitting relevant assets to successfully catalogue and present the work on our platform. During the two-week period of live bidding, the gallery will not be allowed to offer the artworks for sale through any other channel.

Why should galleries participate in primary-market Impact auctions on Artsy?

Auctions offer undeniable benefits. They’re the perfect vehicle to democratize the process of collecting in-demand artists, and they invite a whole new group of enthusiasts to collect the work. There is a rapidly growing global tide of digitally native, savvy collectors who may be too remote to be on a gallery’s radar, but have every intention of building a formidable collection of art, and they wish to do so in a transparent and democratic market.Whereas at a gallery the first fully vetted client gets the work, the last standing fully vetted bidder wins at an auction.

Auctions are a terrific way for galleries to connect with remote audiences, expand the wait lists for their artists, and give new folks a fair shot at entering the art ecosystem. As mentioned above, we introduce the buyers to the galleries after the auction, so we’re here to see long-lasting relationships between galleries and collectors grow and prosper.

What trends are you seeing in online auctions?

The pandemic has really changed the way the art market views online auctions. Pre-pandemic, online auctions were seen as a third-rate receptacle for less desirable artworks. The general consensus was that the “good” work was saved for live auctions.

During the pandemic, the rest of the art market discovered what Artsy had been advocating all along: the new class of art collectors is ready, willing, and able to buy art online, sight unseen. As expected, online auctions have become the best barometer for gauging the art market, particularly at the under-$1 million category.

The current collecting trends definitely skew in favor of red-hot emerging artists working in figuration, especially by artists exploring and challenging existing racial and gender delinations, and, interestingly enough, a renewed interest in lesser-known Post-War artists, whose markets are generally considered safer in times of economic uncertainty. Overall, it’s heartening to see the works successfully sold online stretch across such a panoramic overview of the art market.