Photo courtesy of Hindman
Driven by digital and demographic trends, the collector's market is changing at a rapid pace. With CEO Thomas Galbraith at the helm, Hindman is rising to meet the challenge.
Auction houses often trade in the venerable and archaic, but the market’s intersection with technology is nothing if not of-the-moment. From reaching new audiences digitally to reimagining possibilities for buying-and-selling transactions, the race to adapt and thrive is in ways unimaginable just a decade ago. Throw in Next Gen collector trends redefining the broader art market, and the landscape for this corner of the collecting world is enormously wide open.
Chicago-based auction house Hindman is keeping pace and then some. Operating more salesrooms in the United States than any other auction house, Hindman holds more than 100 auctions a year in categories such as fine art, jewelry, design, books, furniture, decorative arts and couture. Key to growth has been an acquisition of Cincinnati-based Cowan’s Auctions in 2018. In another major move the same year, the uniquely qualified Thomas Galbraith stepped in as CEO. Formerly Managing Director of online auction platform Paddle8 and founder of management consulting firm The Petraeus Group, he has also held key roles at the intersection of art, technology and commerce at Artnet and Google-ventures backed Twyla. We recently spoke with him about his vision for Hindman as well as trends in the digital realm and beyond.
Hindman operates more salesrooms in the United States than any other auction house and is developing new digital and experiential initiatives to reach collectors.
Wealth: You have said that the intersection of art and technology in business should always be growth. How are you using technology to support growth at Hindman?
Galbraith: With a legacy business, you want to introduce technology in a way that does not cannibalize your existing business. Some form of internal disruption is good – because if you do not disrupt yourself, someone else will. But what we try to do is be additive. How do you retain what you have while growing a company through digital means? The way we are doing it is by supplementing our organization, making it more efficient and increasing our lines of communication with a broader client base.
We have spent a lot of time and effort developing a new website and client experience. We are in the first phase of that. What we want to do is give the buyer or seller all of the pertinent information relevant to their relationship with us – a 10,000 foot view and a micro-level view. That includes a client profile page that lets them know what they have bought or sold in the past, shows what they are interested in, and tells them about upcoming sales and what pieces might interest them. A one-stop-shop. As I said, we are in the first phase, and there are multiple phases to build out what is ultimately an ambitious portal.
It sounds so simple, but one of the biggest takeaways that I’ve seen or experienced over the years is to give people what they want. That is so often not the case. So many times organizations are trying to tell their clients what they want, and they’re not listening to what the client is saying.
Wealth: Millennials are the fastest growing group of collectors, and the use of mobile devices to buy and sell art increases every year. How does Next Gen fit into your strategy?
Galbraith: Obviously, a lot of Hindman’s clients lean toward the tangible or offline experience, so there’s enormous growth potential for those who prefer an online experience, skew younger, and are relatively unfamiliar with us. We need to make sure that we apply technology in the right way so as not to lose our existing clients, who are looking for that offline experience, but gain those next generation clients.
"A live auction is one of the most thrilling experiences you could have."
In addition to what I have mentioned, we are also focused on developing our presence on Instagram and digital marketing. That is one area. The other is: How we can engage people at different price points, and how we can get them involved earlier on? There are a number of initiatives we are focused on. Take live auctions. Within the last 20 years, attendance is down. Depending on the sale, 80 percent of our buyers are online. But I think there is tremendous opportunity to speak to an emerging millennial collector base that is very interested in experiences and getting them to understand that bidding at a live auction is one of the most thrilling experiences you could have. It is really exciting and fun, so there is a bit of a disconnect that has not been exploited.
Another component speaks to the online buyer. The way people transact with us should be done in a fashion that suits them. We have live auctions, online auctions, we have developed a private sale offering, and we are looking at deploying a buy-now platform. So now, not only are you presenting inventory in a way that is immediately gratifying, but you are also talking to buyers through different channels. You are saying, ‘If you are intimidated by auctions, we have a buy-now platform. If you liked the online buying experience with us – hey, why not come to a live auction?’ The more we can offer people different means of engaging with us, the better.
Wealth: Are you a collector yourself?
Galbraith: I am. I predominantly like abstract and contemporary art. It really depends, though.
Wealth: Are you ever tempted to bid on an item at Hindman?
Galbraith: I am definitely tempted! Usually, however, I defer to our clients and let them bid.
"I think we are going to see more disruption from inside the art market."
Wealth: What other trends do you see impacting the market over the next decade?
Galbraith: Consolidation is definitely one. I do not say that just because we bought a company in January. I have been saying it for several years. The number of startups and companies looking to disrupt the art market is disproportionate to the size of the art market. So it is only natural that there is going to be a number of companies that shut down or consolidate, and we have begun to see that. The second thing, which comes from that, is that the individuals who were part of those early attempts at disruption invariably end up working at other organizations within the art market. The initial effort to disrupt from the outside may have failed, but I think that we are going to see more disruption from the inside.
I was disrupting from the outside, but now I am disrupting from the inside. I have friends in similar situations, who previously worked at different disrupters. So while the disruption may have largely failed, I think we are going to see more disruption from inside the art market.