Christie’s Cyberattack And A Jittery Art World

The success of New York’s spring art auctions was in jeopardy on Sunday, a day after auction house Christie’s confirmed that its website had been hacked, potentially shutting out some bidders on $850m worth of art work going up for bids this week.

Yet despite failing to regain control of its website, Christie’s said that its auctions – the most important of the year in the art world – would go ahead in person and by phone.

On Saturday, even that was regarded and being uncertain as Christie’s staff and cybersecurity contractors scrambled to fix the issue. It is unknown who or what caused the auction house’s computer systems to collapse. Christie’s called it a “technology security issue”, but the company has been hacked previously.

A spokesperson for the company told the New York Times on Sunday that the sales of modern and contemporary art would “take place as planned”. Last summer, a German cybersecurity company said that there had been a breach in the form of a leak of the locations of artworks held by some of the world’s wealthiest collectors.

Beneath a calm exterior in which prospective buyers toured the midtown auction house looking at hundreds of potential acquisitions on Saturday, including Andy Warhol’s Flowers silk-screen painting from 1964 – estimated at $30m at the top end.

But the upcoming auctions account for as much as half the revenue Christie’s may bring in annually. Any slip-up – especially the loss of confidential client data – is a potential crisis. “A cyber-attack like this is the 21st-century equivalent of a hand grenade in a small room,” the art market lawyer Thomas Danziger told the Times.

At the same time, the New York spring sales are so important to the art market that they may be less vulnerable to online interference because top-end buyers tend to bid in person – through an art adviser – or directly by phone through a Christie’s representative.

Nonetheless, the hack will be seen as embarrassing for Christie’s owners, the Pinault family, which controls the auctioneer through Groupe Artémis. Artémis also controls the fashion conglomerate Kering, owner of Gucci, which has issued a series of profit warnings and seen its share price decline by almost two-thirds over the past year.

But over the next week, more than 1,700 modern and contemporary artworks are expected to come under the hammer through the three dominant houses – Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips. Between them, art estimated at $1.2bn to $1.8bn is expected to be auctioned soon.

That’s a decline of roughly one-third over two years. In 2022, auctioneers shifted $2.8bn of merchandise at the May sales, a record some attributed to buildup of cash during the pandemic.

With many of the world’s regional economies struggling for growth, the demand for art in the US is seen as a potential savior as Chinese and European buyers hold back as compared to previous years.

A Bank of America study recently found that the average price of artworks sold at auction in 2023 decreased by 32%. “The art market is still in search of price equilibrium years after coming off the highs of 2021,” the bank said.

Not only were buyers expecting lower prices, but sellers were holding back until “demand regains its prior price elasticity”.

“The art market correction is adjusting price expectations,” the report said, noting that there was a bright spot. “Women artists are finally getting their due,” the report found, noting that sales of works by female artists were up 10% last year to $788m, an increase on top of gains of 29% in 2022 and 55% in 2021.

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