How successful was tonight’s Paddles ON! sale of digital art in London? On its face pretty good. Phillips sale totaled £83,500 ($113,636.83), exceeding their high estimate for the sale at £67,150 ($91,392.43). Dig a little deeper, though, and the results of the auction as a whole, which included 22 lots, suggest a still developing market: Five lots went unsold and four sold for under their estimates. Two unremarkable abstract panels that sold for as much as five times their estimate boosted the evenings sale numbers. Michael Staniak’s IMG_885, a monochrome painting made of casting compound and acrylic on board, brought in the most; it sold for £25,000, £20,250 over its £4,750 estimate. Trailing Staniak came Michael Manning’s Chinese Broccolini Torta, a pastel digital print on canvas which sold for £15,000, £10,000 over its £5,000 estimate.
It’s important to be cautious when evaluating the Paddles ON! sales figures, because if we don’t, we may miss what they tell us. A look at the names paired with the overall performance of Paddles ON! suggests that an auction may be a dangerous place for young artists to enter the market. Whereas the last auction included big names like Petra Cortright, Rafael Rozendaal, Mark Tribe, Kate Steciw, and Nicolas Sassoon, this version’s larger names were either making the type of work famed flipper Stefan Simchowitz and friends would buy (Michael Staniak, Michael Manning) or were mostly untested in the market (New Aesthetic proponent James Bridle, and GRL’s Evan Roth). Jonas Lund and Sara Ludy are arguably two exceptions to this, but only Lund’s work exceeded its estimate; it sold for £6,000, £4,000 over its £2,000 estimate. For all the press this auction did before it launched—they produced a video with Michael Manning, promoted relentlessly on Twitter, and even secured a feature on Artnet—it seemed to have little influence over a collector’s willingness to purchase an unknown commodity. If anything, Paddles ON! seemed to function as little more than an engine for artists already on the rise.
The auction also had little influence over better-known commodities. Harm van den Dorpel saw his piece go unsold, and he’s a respected artist who is represented by Wilkinson Gallery and has been shown at the New Museum, Museum of Modern Art, and MoMA PS1. A similar piece was shown at Higher Pictures earlier this year. The mobile made of hand cut PET-G may have been a hard sell to begin with—it’s a clear ball—but poor documentation didn’t help. A brief look at how the piece was documented on his site versus Paddle8 certainly suggests that a better quality photograph would have helped the sale.
Unfortunately, there’s no good way to spin problems like van den Dorpel’s unsold lot, though the hope may be that we can simply forget about it. After all, if total sale numbers are propped up to two lots by artists known to be favored by collectors of zombie abstraction, that may do a lot to obscure the core weaknesses of the auction itself. For younger, less established artists in the digital arts, this may mean they still require the kind of nurturing a gallery—not an auction—can offer. A full list of the results can be found on the Phillips website.