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Inside Christie's digital transformation and pioneering use of NFTs

Traditional auction houses, such as Christie's, are making headlines through the use of Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs), which have become increasingly popular because they are not mutually interchangeable. This means content creators are the biggest beneficiaries as NFTs can stop other people from using their work. We find out how NFTs are digital and forever connected with a piece of content or art.

At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, auction house Christie’s quickly adapted to online and hybrid auction models in order to make sure it could still continue to cater to the needs of its clients and the art market at large.

In its One Sale last year, a live-streamed global relay auction between Hong Kong, Paris, London and New York, over 50% of the works that were auctioned, were sold without the buyer having ever seen the items in person. This suggests that clients are embracing Christie’s new virtual formats.

Neda Whitney, the senior vice-president and head of marketing for Americas at Christie’s, says the auction house has seen the appetite for art remain steady, and that its clients are becoming more comfortable with the online auction model.

“Our recent engagement in the non-fungible token (NFT) and digital art space, specifically with the ground-breaking Beeple sale, is a great example of the ways that we are willing to innovate and lead the way as a company,” she explains, referring to the sale of Beeple’s Everydays: The First 5000 Days, the NFT digital art piece that sold at Christie’s online sale for $69,346,250, bought by a Singapore-based investor.

“We will continue to seek out opportunities to reflect back the trends happening in the art community and speak to our clients in increasingly digitally native formats.”

Christie’s digital strategy has a focus on NFTs is becoming increasingly important as the younger generation are becoming the new creation generation. This means they define themselves by their personal brand, their influence, and the content they create on Instagram, TikTok, art, music and opinions.

This is because they care less and less about material wealth, and prioritize experiences, taking virtual asset ownership more seriously and being more comfortable not seeing a tangible asset in their hands but trusting that it is on the blockchain.

Covid-19 has also been a factor that accelerated the rise in NFTs because, in lockdown, people are constantly behind a screen, interacting, creating and transacting. In addition, there is no prior knowledge needed about cryptocurrency and one can get started with only a credit card.

For example, when it comes to sneaker-reselling, a popular hobby by young sneaker enthusiasts, they understand the perceived value of the sneaker, where the demand lies, and how to turn that into profit.

This is becoming prevalent in NFTs, as they are a digital asset for the new virtual generation, a crypto collectable that has all the right features needed in today’s world.

The scale of the transformation goes beyond the headline-grabbing use of NFTs. This transformation is led by Whitney, who joined the auction house from R/GA at the start of 2021, where she was senior vice president and managing director.

She says her immediate priorities are to make sure that people entrust Christie’s to tell the stories of the unique art and objects in its stewardship, and that they are interested in the lens through which Christie’s tells it.

“The Christie’s brand has over 250 years of heritage and legacy, which is an incredible gift for a marketer. We are continuing to find the best channels to tell our compelling stories to existing and emerging audiences is my primary goal,” she explains.

“I’m constantly amazed at the wide breadth of things we have for sale at Christie’s. Aside from art, luxury goods and artefacts from around the world, we have sold dinosaurs, guitar collections, rare sneakers, and now digital art.”

She continues: “I want to make sure that everyone knows that Christie’s is a place where they can explore and be inspired, and the next time they’re looking to make a memorable purchase, they come to us for a true one-of-a-kind piece with a story behind it.”

In addition, as a female executive at Christie’s, Whitney says it is always important for her to seek out moments to mentor and nurture female and diverse talent in the firm.

“Having a voice in key decisions and championing practices that continue to change the complexion of our firm is something that I take as a serious responsibility, and I’m grateful to be involved in our equality, diversity and inclusion working groups,” she explains.

While Christie's use of NFTs may have stolen the limelight, the transformation of such a traditional and well-known brand is a huge undertaking and one that's only just begun.