Welcome to France’s online art market

Gavel on a keyboard
Under the hammer: auction houses have embraced the online model and accessed new markets and clients Credit: Getty

How did French auction houses – so very traditional and rooted in history – complete a successful shift to digital, and who are their new customers?

Paris, despite a depressed economic climate, remains the capital of the art market in continental Europe. With 37,000 artworks sold at auction in 2014, for a total value of $425 million (£278 million), France stands as the world’s fourth largest art market, according to analysts Artprice and AMMA – just behind the US, China and the UK.

Online bidding has undoubtedly contributed to this performance, and digital platforms such as Barnebys have helped to foster this growth. But how did French auction houses – so very traditional and rooted in history – complete a successful shift to digital? Who are their new customers?

Tajan, as one of France’s leading auction houses, caters to multiple specialities, organising 60 auctions a year. According to Romain Monteaux-Sarmiento, head of communication and web marketing, the company’s online transition was carried out in two steps.

“The internet was an obvious choice for us. The early-stage version of our website was launched in 1996 and still helps us today,” said Monteaux-Sarmiento.

“Our SEO [search engine optimisation] is very efficient and our online presence has been increasingly reinforced since the appointment of our current director, Rodica Seward, in 2004. She immediately understood the importance of investing in this tool.”

At Millon & Associés, online developments grew swiftly thanks to the innovative vision of Alexandre Millon, who was just 26 when he took over the company. Anne-Sophie Joncoux-Pilorget, its head of communication and marketing, says: “We firmly believe in online sales. We are currently present on the Barnebys platform but also on all the websites that support auctions.”

Millon & Associés went even further by setting up three online-only auction houses. Artprecium (diversified artworks), Asium (Asian art) and Appolium (musical instruments) enable the auction house to meet a real demand that has only recently surfaced and calls for diversification.

“We have a hit on our online sales,” says Ms Joncoux-Pilorget. “We already sold a Chinese vase worth €300,000 (£214,000) on Asium. When reaching this price level, customers can of course ask to see the artwork before buying it online”.

Osenat is another auction house that has embraced the importance of a solid online presence. All its sales are regularly advertised on their websites, and online catalogues are available.

Jean-Pierre Osenat, who has been operating in the auction world for more than 40 years, has seen the impact of new technologies as they revolutionise the art market. As head of Symev, the national union for auction houses, he leads open discussion on the subject to efficiently participate in the development of the French art market.

But who are the latest clients of these online sales? Where do they come from – are they initiated people, regular collectors or simply curious young art amateurs?

Many businesses have adopted the online model to access new markets and international clients. Barnebys is available in six countries – Sweden, the UK, France, Germany, Spain and the US – with further international expansion planned this year.

At Tajan, 60 per cent of buyers are international clients. “We have more and more buyers from emerging markets such as Russia, China, Brazil and Mexico,” says Monteaux-Sarmiento.

“They tend to be younger thanks to our new online-only sales. Practical, fast and unobtrusive purchase is what clients want. Watches, wine, Asian art and design are among the most successful [lots].”

To meet demand, new sales have emerged. At Millon & Associés, comics, video games and Aboriginal art are among the latest highlights. “We are always innovating with new sales,” says Joncoux-Pilorget.

“Our video games sale was a success and it attracted particularly young collectors. We are also the only auction house that organises an Aboriginal art sale twice a year.”

Tajan executives have also noticed rising demand for comics and street art. Beyond these trends, online auction development does seem deeply rooted in collectors’ new habits. Tajan is happy to embrace this digital revolution and the new kind of service offered by a website such as Barnebys.

“We are very happy with Barnebys. This content aggregator targets our customers and fosters traffic, brand awareness and visibility,” said Monteaux-Sarmiento. ”We have a balanced symbiosis between our online and offline presences. Being online is a qualitative service for our customers.”

At Millon & Associés, Joncoux-Pilorget takes a similar view. “We have an online presence, but we meet our clients face-to-face to create customer loyalty,” she says.

Rossini, another Parisian house with its own auction room, has also grasped the importance of implementing a bricks-and-clicks model, combining offline and online. Customers seek available content online before going to auction houses to meet specialists.

Digital expansion has taken place through websites, social media and online sales – so what is the next step?

“Probably mobile presence, ” says Joncoux-Pilorget. “Buying art is a hobby, and we often use our smartphones for leisure purposes. In the meantime we are looking at increasing our social media presence”.

For Tajan, the priority until September will be to redesign its website. “The smartphone application will complement this digital project.”

Barnebys praises these new investment trends and the focus on greater digital presence. The company makes the auction world transparent, easily accessible and understandable for everyone. No more excuses now… it’s hammer time!

For more information, visit Barnebys.co.uk