Sotheby’s posted its highest-grossing year ever, boosted by millennials and NFTs

December 16, 2021, 8:08 AM UTC

Fine art and luxury goods auction house Sotheby’s enjoyed a record-breaking sales year in 2021, boosted by a younger, digital-savvy generation of collectors.

In a year-end report released on Wednesday, Sotheby’s recorded $7.3 billion in sales this year—a 46% jump from 2020 and the highest sales figure ever in its 277-year history.

The auction house credited an “influx of younger, tech-savvy collectors” interested in luxury goods and, of course, non-fungible tokens (NFTs)—digital assets including art, music, poetry, and even tweets, stored on the Ethereum blockchain—for its success this year. Around 44% of all Sotheby’s bidders were first-timers this year, while 80% of all NFT bidders were newcomers. Among those shopping for NFTs, over half were under 40 years old, said Sotheby’s in its year-end report.

Although only a small percentage of Sotheby’s record-breaking sales, NFTs have proved to be a lucrative market for the storied auction house.

Sotheby’s brokered its first NFT sale this April—a three-day online event in collaboration with digital artist Pak—in which the creator’s artwork sold for $16.8 million. The sale took place on Nifty Gateway, a digital art online auction platform for NFTs owned by cryptocurrency exchange Gemini. In October, Sotheby’s launched its own marketplace for NFTs, called Sotheby’s Metaverse.

But Sotheby’s first NFT sale in April helped fuel a “dramatic expansion” of its audience, the auction house said. So far this year, Sotheby’s NFT sales reached $100 million, while the total amount of sales transacted online climbed to $800 million—its highest figure for online sales ever, and up 52% from 2020.

Notably in September, Sotheby’s “Ape In!” sale of Bored Ape Yacht Club (BAYC) and Bored Ape Kennel Club (BAKC) NFTs sold for a cumulative $26 million—a record amount for a Sotheby’s NFT auction. The BAYC is one of the most popular NFT collections. Each “token” represents one of 10,000 stylized digital ape drawings, which owners can use as profile pictures or as a digital avatar. Owners of Bored Apes include talk show host Jimmy Fallon, rapper Post Malone and National Basketball Association (NBA) star Steph Curry.

In October, Sotheby’s sold a rare BAYC NFT depicting an ape with gold fur for a record-breaking $3.4 million—the highest amount ever paid for a Bored Ape NFT. Less than 1% of all Bored Apes have gold fur, “making it an NFT with historical significance,” the auction house said at the time.

In November, the company conducted its first live auction where buyers could place bids in Ether—the native currency of the Ethereum blockchain. According to Sotheby’s, the event was the first time ever that cryptocurrency was used to bid on physical artworks during a live auction. Sotheby’s brokered the sale of two artworks by British street artist Banksy during the auction, which collectively sold for 3,093 Ether (worth approximately $12 million at the time).

Sotheby’s delivered its year-end results the same day that Bloomberg reported Patrick Drahi—the French telecom billionaire and owner of Sotheby’s—is exploring taking the auction house public through an IPO in the U.S. as early as next year.

Sotheby’s isn’t the only fine arts broker getting in on the NFT action. London-headquartered Christie’s in March became the first auction house to sell an artwork that doesn’t exist physically: It sold a digital collage NFT by artist Mike Winkelmann, more commonly known as Beeple, for $69 million. It’s the highest-grossing NFT sale, ever.

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