NEW YORK•• Anyone in the art market who was not already paying attention to the social media platform Instagram had to sit up and take notice in April, after Pierce Brosnan visited the showroom of the Phillips auction house in London.
The actor posted a photo of himself in front of a work he admired: the Lockheed Lounge, a space-age aluminium chaise longue by industrial designer Marc Newson. Then he added the words "let the bidding commence", and posted it to the 164,000 followers of his Instagram feed.
And commence it did. Later that week, Phillips broke the world auction record for a design object, selling Lockheed Lounge for £2.4 million (S$5.15 million).
"It's hard to make a direct correlation between Pierce Instagramming us and the world record, but certainly it made the lounger more desirable," Ms Megan Newcome, Phillips' director of digital strategy, said. "Thanks, Pierce, for the shout-out."
It was not the first time the art market had been influenced by images on Instagram. In the past few years, it has emerged as the social media platform of choice for many contemporary artists, galleries, auction houses and collectors, who use it to promote art - especially works by emerging artists - and to offer an early peek into studios, auction houses and art fairs. How much that actually translates into sales like the Lockheed Lounge, however, is still up for debate.
Instagram, which started in 2010, is an online mobile app that allows users to share square, Polaroid-style images and 15second videos, with a network of more than 300 million users worldwide. Users build social networks of followers and, most important for the art world, are introduced to artists they might like through a "discover" function. Ms Elizabeth Bourgeois, a company spokesman, said that, globally, users share about 70 million photos each day via the app.
Mr Simon de Pury, an international auctioneer who has 131,000 followers on his Instagram feed, @simondepury, said: "So many people are either artists, collectors or gallery owners or photographers who are using it very actively, so it allows you to preview exhibitions happening everywhere in the world, and to see the works the minute the exhibitions open, rather than waiting to read about it in a review. That's what makes it exciting."
The world's biggest auction houses also use their official Instagram feeds (Christie's has 96,700 followers; Sotheby's has 120,000) to post images of select items from coming sales.
But the central question in the art world is how many actual art sales are generated by the app. Instagram has no functionality that could make it useful as a direct sales platform and has no plans to add one, Ms Bourgeois said. But quite often, art aficionados say they are using the app to preview works and request more information.
"When you see something on Instagram that's hanging in a gallery somewhere and you want to acquire it, you can instantly call up the gallery," Mr de Pury said, adding that he had made many purchases this way.
Who is using the platform this way is a matter of much fascination in the art world. In March, art news websites such as artnet.com and hyperallergic.com were abuzz when it was reported that actor Leonardo DiCaprio, an avid art collector, had bought Nachlass, a painting by emerging artist Jean-Pierre Roy, for US$15,000 (S$20,770) over the telephone after supposedly seeing it on Instagram.
The artist's dealer, Mr Morten Poulsen in Copenhagen, said the artist "had posted a detailed image of the painting on Instagram".
After that, Roy received a message from DiCaprio, "asking us to keep the painting on hold until he saw high-res quality images of the work", Mr Poulsen said.
"I sent him that, the deal was finalised and the painting went into Mr DiCaprio's collection."
Ms Lisa Schiff, an art adviser in New York for DiCaprio, said he had denied the sale was based on an Instagram sighting, but she confirmed that DiCaprio did buy Roy's painting through her office.
Whether the Instagram connection was accurate, the report, originally published on the Creators Project, a Vice.com blog, was republished on many top art news websites and blogs as an example of Instagram's growing market influence.
Ms Newcome said that, at least for now, Instagram seemed to be used mostly as a promotional tool, rather than part of "a sales-driven strategy".
"If one of our specialists has a favourite work in an upcoming sale, they'll certainly ask for us to 'give it a little love on Instagram'," she said.
"And you never know: You can literally post something on Instagram and, a few minutes later, have someone ask to buy it. These are the legends that have been developing around Instagram already."
NEW YORK TIMES