Instagram post helps to seal $35m art sale

NEW YORK • Shortly before his plane took off from New York last month, Christie's top dealmaker Brett Gorvy posted a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting of boxing champion Sugar Ray Robinson on Instagram.

When he landed in Hong Kong 16 hours later, he discovered text messages from three clients asking if the painting was available. One immediately made an offer for the 1982 canvas showing Robinson as a squat, scowling figure. The deal was completed two days later for about US$24 million (S$35 million) - more than triple the US$7.3 million the work fetched at auction in 2007.

"In this marketplace, everyone is looking for an edge," Mr Gorvy, who resigned from Christie's this month, said in a telephone interview. "It just shows you the power of social media and the transformation of how people are buying."

Think of it as the art world's version of high-frequency trading: Access to valuable information before others is key in the opaque market - and social media plays a growing role.

Collectors including commodities trader Andy Hall and hedge fund manager Dan Sundheim are on Instagram. Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa announced his purchase of a US$57.3-million Basquiat in May by posting a photo on the site. Korean pop star T.O.P., who often posts art images to his 6.3 million Instagram followers, curated Sotheby's surprisingly successful contemporary art auction in Hong Kong in October.

Instagram does not track art sales, according to Mr Gabe Madway, a spokesman for the site. The network, now owned by Menlo Park, California-based Facebook, was created in 2010 as a mobile app for sharing photos and videos.

The posting of Jean-Michel Basquiat's painting of boxing champion Sugar Ray Robinson on Instagram led to its quick sale.
The posting of Jean-Michel Basquiat's painting of boxing champion Sugar Ray Robinson on Instagram led to its quick sale. PHOTO: BRETT GORVY/INSTAGRAM

"Most of my top clients are on Instagram," said Mr Gorvy, who joined in March last year and has 54,000 followers. His daily posts are a mix of art images, artist quotes, personal musings, lyrics from David Bowie or Leonard Cohen. "That's where the future is. It's now, it's happening."

The Robinson portrait was in Hong Kong as part of a private sales exhibition of Western art that was held in concert with Christie's marathon of auctions last month. The seller was billionaire British jeweller Laurence Graff, according to people with knowledge of the matter.

The buyer, an American, "was ahead of the game because of the speed of knowledge and direct connection to me from the other side of the world", Mr Gorvy said.

The platform allows Mr Gorvy to take the temperature of trends and peek into collectors' living rooms. Although he views it more as a diary than a marketing tool - he recently posted photos of a rooster walking down the street and dolphins leaping through the waves - he has received tips via followers that led to sales.

The size and quickness of the Basquiat deal surprised him and others in the industry.

"That's the highest number I've heard" for a work sold through Instagram, said Mr Simon de Pury, an auctioneer who has 174,000 followers.

Social media has been a part of the art business for years, mostly to spread the word about artists and exhibitions, but its importance has increased.

Online sales reached US$3.27 billion last year, more than doubling since 2013, according to a survey by London-based insurance company Hiscox. Almost half of the buyers surveyed use Instagram, the report shows.

Actor Leonardo DiCaprio bought an artwork at a fair last year after seeing it on Instagram. Hip-hop mogul Swizz Beatz has used social media to source works for his "No Commission" shows in Miami, London and New York.

Artist Richard Prince discovered Irish painter Genieve Figgis on Twitter, which helped lead to two solo shows in New York and a current exhibition at the Metropolitan Opera's Gallery Met.

"There are artists who beg me to put their works on my feed," Mr de Pury said.

Followers can get too eager. A few years ago, he posted an image from the popular London restaurant Novikov, which had an abstract feel to it, with the hashtag #Novikov.

"I instantly had people asking me," Mr de Pury said, "'Where can I buy a Novikov?'"


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 23, 2016, with the headline 'Instagram post helps to seal $35m art sale'. Print Edition | Subscribe