Christie’s Steven P. Murphy: “Why wouldn’t we build a company that lives half its life online?”

While its rival Sotheby’s gathers headlines for boardroom dramas, Christie’s CEO Steven P. Murphy has been promoting Christie’s digital strategy in recent weeks. In an interview with Bloomberg TV Murphy set out Christie’s digital plans as well as its 360-degree online/offline approach to ensuring its customers have a “unique and seamless Christie’s experience” via Christie’s online, in their salerooms or through the growing number of Christie’s exhibition spaces..

Christie's CEO Steven Murphy

“The number of buyers at all level is increasing exponentially.”

A number of themes common to any discussion of the web’s impact on art sales run through Murphy’s responses:

  • The growth of the art market is “not a bubble” – it’s due to the fact that online, the number of buyers at all levels is “increasing exponentially […] 48% of the buyers coming in online were brand new to Christie’s“. Although most online transactions were at the lower end of the price scale, the upper end is also growing: “Sixteen bidders in 2013 spent over a million dollars buying online – it’s really happening.”
  • Christie’s is supporting its global online reach with a growing number of exhibition spaces around the world increasing to 18 in the next year, “So the art’s touring through bricks and mortar and it’s available online.”
  • The Christie’s brand is even more important for building trust with online customers: “People know if they’re buying from Christies they’re getting exactly what we say it is, and we will back that up: the provenance, the authenticity, the condition report. There’s a confidence there.”
  • Murphy – who came to Christie’s from publishing – believes that what happened in the publishing and music industries is happening in the art business:

Having looked at what happened in those other industries, we decided to embrace the change and get ahead of the wave as opposed to being disintermediated. That means we have built an online and digital relationship with our potential customers that makes it easy for them to come into Christie’s. […] I believe in the repetition of narratives. So in the music business 6% downloads… Amazon used to be 7% of the book business. That six and seven percent is the beginning of things. As Malcolm Gladwell might say, there’s a moment at which there’s that tipping point, and I think we should be ahead of the tipping point occurring to us.

  •  For Christie’s 2013 was a “proof of concept year” in its digital rollout:

It’s been a huge change and there’s been quite a big investment. Anyone who has a company that’s moving into the online space as well as bricks and mortar knows that it doesn’t come cheap. You have to have the courage to commit to build the facility. So last year was our ‘proof of concept’ year. We had 60 online auctions. The best news of all was that everything worked. Credit cards worked, the shipping worked, the box was a very Christie’s box when it arrived in your home. Now we know the machine works we’re expanding it.

  • Online is an integral part to the relationship with every one of its customers. Murphy says predicting trends to inform a digital strategy “is not simple, but it’s basic”:

Every good company should base its strategy on the behaviour of its clients and its prospective clients, not on their own ideas. All of our clients are already living half their life online. So why wouldn’t we build a company that lives half its life online to serve that environment that people are already engaged in?