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Bonnie Brennan, President Of Christie’s Americas, Focuses On Driving Christie’s North-Star Strategy To Meet A New Digital Landscape While Maintaining The Auction House’s Storied Heritage.

It has been an incredible year in the auction landscape. NFTs, which were championed by and first rose to public awareness due to Christie’s, are here to stay. The organization saw record sales with a $3.5 billion first half of 2021. Under Bonnie Brennan, the President of Christie’s Americas’ “North-Star” strategy, the historic auction house is poised to usher in a new, more aware, diverse, and innovative future. Bonnie is focused on driving Christie’s innovation and evolving its programming to meet a new digital landscape while also maintaining the auction house’s commitment to its storied heritage – a challenging balance. Bonnie is dedicated to seeking new and diverse talent and creating an internal environment that supports women in the workplace and promotes a work-life balance.

Chan: What is Christie’s North-Star strategy?

Brennan: Christie’s started in 1766, and those same core values that were important, like passion, expertise, and exceptional client service, remain the backbone of this business. I have to maintain those principles while focusing on innovation and driving growth to keep our status as the market leader. Our clients see us as leaders of change and as partners who allow them to have new and fresh conversations with us. We’re doing that through digital tools and virtual auctions, which we developed during the pandemic. But it’s also through expansion and entirely new categories like NFTs. This year, another great example was the development of our 21st-century art sale, which focused on artists and works of art developed since 1980 through into this century. We’ve learned that we need to think creatively about engaging with our clients through different channels, auctions, online, and private sales. Lastly, we focus on innovation, offering, diversity, and ensuring that the organization’s core values are demonstrated in what we’re putting forward to our clients. Areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion are so important to us as a corporate value. We have to demonstrate that in what we sell and the artists that we work with. We want to be innovators but always stay true to our corporate values.

Chan: Can you talk about the online auction vs. traditional live auction experience?

Brennan: The theater experience of the live auction is something that we had to find a new way to create during the pandemic. Thankfully, we were moving towards a more digital future pre-pandemic, so we could be flexible and innovate quickly. The success of the sales that we had during the pandemic showed us that we did a good job creating the excitement and energy of an auction room through the use of digital tools. Whether it’s art, furniture, and jewelry, our clients see art as a source of peace and comfort in challenging times. We saw a 40% increase in online bidders and their participation in watching videos and panel discussions. Our clients came to us for content, so we responded by increasing that platform and giving more chances for us to talk to them, which was great. Since our clients couldn’t come to us during the pandemic, we went to them with pop-up exhibitions in cities like Palm Beach, Southampton, and Aspen. We will never move away from digital tools because we gained so much from them. We want to continue giving our clients flexibility to engage with us either in person or virtually. There will always be a level of digital engagement because it’s so easy. It allows our global client base to engage with us even if they’re physically in Asia; they can still participate and be part of the room in New York. One of the exciting things we developed during the pandemic, in partnership with Microsoft, was virtual skyboxes where you could log in and be in a room with other people and be seen on the screen in our auction room. There’s nothing that replicates the joy of being in person, but this added to that excitement.

Chan: Have you seen an increase in sales since your reach is much more extensive through the digital platform?

Brennan: Absolutely. First, the market has been tremendously resilient through Covid; we had $3.5 billion in sales in just the first half of 2021. That’s the second-best six months we’ve had in six years. Online sales in the first half of this year were up 178% at $220 million. Our client base has also grown 42% larger. We’ve had greater digital fluency; that’s a real win for us.

Chan: Do you think the in-person and online hybrid auction model is here to stay?

Brennan: This fall will be our first opportunity to test that hybrid model. All of our auctions to date had to transform from a theater to a production studio. We will try to create one that captures both this fall. The delta variant has provided additional challenges, but our clients have indicated they are eager to get back to the in-person live theater experience. We have so many new things in the pipeline and great reasons to bring people back into Christie’s. The other nice thing about coming out of the other side of the pandemic is while we’ve continued to see significant demand throughout the lockdown, we now have more supply. This is a big year for digital and NFT sales at Christie’s, and it certainly will be a strong headline of our total 2021 sales. We’ve sold over $93 million NFTs since the Beeple NFT sold for $69 million in March. We’re proud to usher this global rush to collecting digital art, and it’s been an entirely new channel for us. The NFT auctions have also brought in new buyers. We had 400 additional clients on our radar as a result of these NFT sales. It’s also brought us a younger set of clients. The average age of the NFT buyer is about 38, whereas our average core traditional category client is 13 years older. The NFT platform also allows us to communicate some of those core values we discussed earlier, such as our focus on diversity. This summer, we had an excellent NFT sale by an 18-year-old transgender artist named FEWOCiOUS, the youngest artist ever sold by Christie’s, and the sale made over $2.1 million. Christie’s believes that we have to share our learning and be a voice in this category. It’s vital to bring thought leaders to work together. This summer, we hosted an art and technology summit where we had innovators in the field, and we had over 1000 people participated in person and virtually.

Chan: What’s next for NFTs at Christie’s?

Brennan: NFTs are very interesting to our clients since the Beeple sale brought so much attention. We continue to help educate our clients about what NFTs are. It’s also an excellent chance for us to be first in different categories. Beeple was the first big moment, but we just had our first design NFT with an artist named Misha Kahn. It was a sale called Unhinged with 3D models of furniture and design. Our first NFT auction in Hong Kong, “It’s No Time Like The Present,” runs from the 17th through the 28th of September, and it features some of the NFT-minted works from CryptoPunks created by Larva Labs, as well as Yuga Labs’ Bored Ape Yacht Club (BAYC) and Larva Labs’ latest creation Meebits. NFT is an exciting new channel for us, and it’s had a significant impact on our business globally.

Chan: Do you think NFTs are here to stay?

Brennan: We were the first auction house to identify, understand, and capture the NFT market. We believe it’s here to stay. As long as it’s relevant and exciting to our clients, we will have a voice there.

Chan: What is the profile of these NFT clients?

Brennan: About 85% of our NFT sales involved the use of cryptocurrency; people who are investors or interested in crypto are our clients. In addition, we’ve been able to convert the interests of the younger NFT buyers into more traditional categories. One of the participants in the Beeple sale later bought a Picasso and a Warhol.

Chan: Can you please speak about your luxury masterpiece buyer profiles, and where do you see the growth?

Brennan: Clients didn’t shy away from high valued masterworks this year. In 2020-21, Christie’s sold seven of the twelve highest-selling works, and it was the first time a piece broke the $100 million mark in 2019, and that was a Picasso we sold in May. We’ve seen remarkable growth in the luxury category. This masterpiece buying and development in specific segments is driven by the real return at the highest levels from our clients in Asia. Asian buyers are almost 40% of our activity this calendar year, and they’re buying across all segments and particularly interested in western masterpieces. The younger Asian buyers are impacting the larger global luxury space, and many are interested in NFTs. That’s why we’re excited to have this first NFT auction in Hong Kong this season.

Asian Luxury Buyer Growth:

  • 25% growth in APAC buyers on $5M+ vs. pre-pandemic level (2021 YTD vs. 2019 YTD)
  • 75% growth in Mainland China buyers $5M+ vs. pre-pandemic level (2021 YTD vs. 2019 YTD)

Demographics (buyers/bidders 2021 YTD):

  • The average age of APAC buyers/bidders $5M+ is 54; 5yrs younger than traditional Core buyer average of 59yrs
  • The average age of APAC Luxury cluster buyers/bidders YTD is 45; 2yrs younger than the traditional Core average of 47yrs
  • The average age of APAC New buyers/bidders YTD is 42; 4yrs younger than traditional Core average of 46yrs
  • 41% of APAC New Buyers in H1 are Female (vs. 32% for Christie’s overall)
  • 47% of APAC New Buyers in H1 are Millennials (vs. 31% for Christie’s overall)

Other APAC growth/demographics statistics:

  • 6 of Top 10 lots sold in H1 went to APAC buyers
  • 29% of all masterpiece (MP) works ($5M+) went to APAC buyers (APAC buyers bought 22 out of 76 MP lots sold in H1)
  • 4 out of the 7 Post War Contemporary works realizing $20M+ in H1 went to APAC buyers

Chan: If you can travel back in time, what is the one piece of advice that you would give to yourself as you embark on your professional journey?

Brennan: I’ve been lucky to have many great mentors in my career, and one of my best mentors tells me to be bold but sweat the details. I think you have to be bold, professionally and personally, but those little things can be critical. The little details are so vital, and it’s the little things that make big things happen. I think that’s important when you talk about female leadership and what I am doing to impact positive change in that area. I have to do something every day, even if it’s very small, to forward that. I’m very involved with our formal mentorship program. I want to make sure that members of our organization are investing in the next generation giving women real voices, whether in leadership roles or as ambassadors of Christie’s when we pitch for business with clients. It’s important to do that. I also think we have to be really good listeners to women. The pandemic has forced them to juggle even more than they were before with homeschooling and challenges around child and family responsibilities. We have to give them flexibility. All these can be seen as little things but are so crucial to the growth and development of women. I remember years ago hearing Madeleine Albright said,” there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”

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