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An auction house goes high tech

Andy Serwer
Editor in Chief

You may have the impression that the art business is a fusty world filled with English-accented auctioneers and mysterious billionaire buyers. Truth be told there is some of that, but you might be surprised how technology and even sophisticated banks are revamping and expanding this business.

I spoke about the new world of auctioning not long ago with Kathy and Laura Doyle, mother/daughter and CEO and vice chairman (respectively) of privately held Doyle auction house. The conversation was at the Asian Cultural Center and I asked them about how they were harnessing these trends.

Kathy, 73, who’s run the family business for the past 25 years, freely admits that Laura, 40, has taken the lead on tech and defers to her on these matters. “I think technology is making everything easier in a lot of ways,” Laura says. “Instagram has been an incredible help in the art market. I personally have bought things and found artists that I collect through Instagram. And I think for us being storytellers and having a visual business it’s incredibly important.”

Laura gave an example, saying that her company— which competes with big boys Christie’s and Sotheby’s—was selling the contents of an apartment that had been done by the renowned designer Miles Redd (79,000 followers on Insta), and by putting items on Instagram, Doyle was able to reach Redd’s followers and new audiences as well, that might not have known these items were available.

Doyle started up its Insta account (@doylenewyork) three years ago and Laura, who helped get it off the ground, says she likes to stay involved.

Not surprisingly, Doyle also puts out a weekly email newsletter called Doyle Notebook to get the word out. One recent week it highlighted a vintage boom box by Kenny Scharf, circa 1985, part of DoyleNext: A contemporary collector auction done at online auctioneer, yet another nod to the new digital world through which Doyle must navigate.

The future of art is tech

Shipping, too, is a facet of the business that’s evolving. “There are a number of new digital platforms like Shiphawk,” says Doyle, “but so far no one has really nailed it in our business. Payments is another aspect that could be disrupted. We use charge cards but on a very limited basis because of charge backs, the terms of guarantee the credit card companies offer their clients and the percentages they charge. New types of payment with lower transaction costs and more protection for the vendor would be helpful for our business.” In the future, she says Blockchain could end up playing a big role.

Image courtesy of Doyle

And speaking of cutting-edge, Doyle is really intrigued by Artmyn, an interesting new Swiss company. “It’s the most exciting technology that I’ve seen recently,” says Laura. “Artmyn takes 3D photos of paintings where you can change the lighting to really examine the work in an entirely new way. You can see a work at a resolution and with an intimacy and with a level of technology that even surpasses that in person.”

Laura Doyle says Artmyn is essentially creating digital fingerprints of works because it can analyze each artwork’s unique features like brushwork and technical aspects, like “topography, reflectance and colorimetric properties,” which in total would be next to impossible to replicate. At some point Doyle says this can be integrated into some sort of Blockchain technology to really guarantee “provenance and authenticity or works of art,” she says.

This kind of process could prove increasingly important as financial institutions have been viewing art as an asset class. “There is a bank that we were working with which was building a collection of jades, for instance, and instead of investing in other kinds of assets, they were using the jades as an asset class for the benefit of their clients,” says Kathy Doyle.

European banks like Santander, Deutsche Bank and EFG Bank, as well as Emirates National Bank of Dubai have been particular active participants in building art as an asset class. JPMorgan also included art as an investment class at a conference for wealthy clients. And the Carlyle Group has teamed up with exclusive private Swiss bank Pictet, to create Athena, a “specialty lender, offering competitive non-recourse loans, focused exclusively on fine art as collateral.” So lots of high-end, big-money action in banking circles.

It’s a world of change for auction houses like Doyle. Enough to blow off any remaining dust, from this maybe-not-so fusty business.

Andy Serwer is the Editor-in-Chief of Yahoo Finance.