Paddle8: online art auction pioneer

Contemporary art from an iPhone app to your wall

“When we dreamt up Paddle8 five years ago, we envisioned a destination for a new breed of collector: someone who is digitally savvy, nomadic, culturally curious, collects across categories and craves 24/7 access to his or her passions,” says Osman Khan, who founded the online auction house in 2011 with Alexander Gilkes, formerly an LVMH executive and chief auctioneer at Phillips, and Aditya Julka, a Harvard-educated engineer. Today Paddle8 is one of the world’s leading online-only auctioneers, backed by a team of 120 experts in art, luxury collectables and technology, based in New York, London and Los Angeles. This week, the house also announced it is joining forces with leading German vintage luxury auction platform Auctionata to create a joint company (though keeping separate names for the time being) with combined sales of over $150m and nearly 800,000 registered users, according to a statement released on May 12.  

Paddle8 presents a variety of sales at any one time, ranging from rock ’n’ roll photography to “Distinctive Watches”, offering artworks by Marc Chagall, John Baldessari and Banksy at the click of a mouse. “Over the past five years, the lots and auctions that have generated the most interest have included Kurt Cobain’s credit card – which sold for $36,000, from a starting bid of $6,000 – an auction of nude photographs curated by Vogue’s Grace Coddington and a brand-new cabinet by Damien Hirst produced in collaboration with taxidermy house Deyrolle,” says Khan.

A current highlight is the May Post-War & Contemporary art auction, which ends on Tuesday May 17. Alongside Italian artist Lucio Fontana’s all-white punctured paper Concetto Spaziale, 1960-1965 (estimated at $100,000-$150,000) are a 1985 Jean-Michel Basquiat drawing (Untitled, $60,000-$80,000), a kaleidoscopic Hirst screen print (Cathedral Print, St Paul, 2007, $25,000-$30,000) and the multilayered collage Alien Polka Ponder, 2003 ($100,000-$150,000; first picture) by acclaimed Kenyan-born Brooklyn-based artist Wangechi Mutu, whose work addresses race, sexuality and gender.

The photography auction that opens on May 17, meanwhile, offers a diverse selection of prints, from one of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s infamous street scenes, Michel Gabriel, Rue Mouffetard, 1954 ($15,000-$20,000), showing a young boy caring two large bottles of wine, to Iranian artist Shirin Neshat’s personal and political I am its Secret, 1999 (from the Women of Allah series, $6,000-$8,000, second picture), with a female face covered in Persian calligraphy.

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Alongside information on the artist and the piece, buyers can see the number of bids and the current highest, as well as where the work ships from. Each lot is offered by an established yet independent dealer (“all vetted by trusted specialists”), then shipped directly from the seller rather than a Paddle8 warehouse: a system that helps keep commission rates lower than traditional bricks-and-mortar auction houses – by about 10 per cent for buyers. To bid, online or via the iPhone app, browsers “join” Paddle8, a process that involves being verified by a credit card; for the winning bidder, artworks are delivered in three to four weeks.

But despite the slick interface and the lower costs, are art lovers as keen to buy online as they are at, say, Sotheby’s? It has been widely reported that buyers have been slow to take to e-auctions. The European Fine Art Foundation revealed that in 2014, although €51bn of art was sold by auction houses and dealers, only 6 per cent of this was conducted online. But the market is now showing signs of serious change, which saw Paddle8’s sales double last year.

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Paddle8 believes it complements rather than competes with traditional auctions and their multimillion-dollar showstoppers (the highest Paddle8 auction price achieved so far is $900,000, for a Jeff Koons egg sold as part of the Fabergé Big Egg Hunt in 2014, although it “regularly sells works for over $1m through our private sales channels”). “We aimed to fill the ‘white space’ between unvetted marketplaces like eBay and the high-touch, high-feel houses such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s,” explains Khan. “We concentrate on works valued between $1,000 and $100,000. Our collector base is a mix of novice collectors, who had previously felt excluded from the ivory tower art world, and long-time collectors, who value the speed and access to extraordinary property that Paddle8 provides.”

Another major draw are Paddle8’s charity auctions – Unicef Next Generation (until Wednesday May 18), for example, supports Unicef’s Children of Syria Emergency Appeal with the sale of works by lesser-known contemporary artists, such as subtle abstract Pattern Recognition, 2016, by Marita Fraser (estimated at £3,500) – which are tipped by insiders as a top source for exciting artworks, at equally exciting prices.

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