When Old Meets New - A US$114.5m Bulgari Product Placement at Sotheby’s Old Master Sale

Since the early stage of the pandemic, major auction houses began to adapt quickly to the “bricks and clicks” format. Livestream auctions bring the audience at home ever-closer to the auctioneers’ and specialists’ every move. The virtual shift comes with new business opportunities that were not in a traditional saleroom, including innovative marketing strategies.

Headlined by the record-breaking portrait by Renaissance master Sandro Botticelli, last week’s Sotheby’s New York sale tallied US$114.5m with fees. The livestream auction of nearly 600,000 views provided a new marketing opportunity for the auction house, in partnership with luxury jewelry brand Bulgari. 

Auctioneer Oliver Barker began the marquee sale with the announcement that both the timepiece on his wrist that night, and some of the jewelry pieces worn by his New York colleagues were part Bulgari’s latest collection inspired by Old Master paintings. 


Auctioneer Oliver Barker was wearing the Octo Finissimo timepiece by Bulgari 


Bulgari Octo Finissimo Automatic, retails for US$16,100 on its website 


Calvine Harvey, Sotheby’s Old Master paintings specialist, wearing a Bulgari B.zero1 bangle


One of the bangle bracelets in the B.zero 1 collection: REF. 350942, retails for US$6,300 on its website 


The record-breaking US$92.2m portrait by Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) - Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel


The Master Paintings & Sculpture Part I sale began at 10am New York time. Right after the usual preview of the night’s top lots, what caught the audience’s attention was a Bulgari commercial, before it was revealed that the sale was presented in partnership with the Italian luxury jeweler.


The Bulgari commercial before the livestream sale began


During the bidding process for lot 6, a landscape by Salomon van Ruysdael, auctioneer Barker also pointed out the “fabulous necklace on Margi’s neck” as Margaret H Schwartz, Sotheby’s Co-Head of the Old Master Sculpture Department Worldwide, was relaying the bidding to her client on the phone. 


Margaret H Schwartz in a navy-blue dress, showing off the Bulgari necklace 


Sotheby’s later uploaded a picture on its website, in which the Rosso Caravaggio Necklace is clearly seen 


Prior to the sale, a dedicated page titled “How the Eternal City Inspires Bulgari’s Lucia Silvestri” was put up on the auction house’s website, as the creative director of Bulgari delves into the partnership between the Maison and Sotheby’s. The Eternal City of Rome converges historical architecture and cultural relics that melds into the artistic dialogues of the collection. The Italian capital is also where Bulgari’s legacy dates back to.

The page mentions that Bulgari’s Barocko collection, launched in 2020, pays homage to the jeweler’s Roman roots and is inspired by the “Barocco” art movement of the 1600s, led particularly by the artists of the time, such as Mernini, Caravaggio, and Borromini.

The aforementioned necklace worn by Schwartz, the Rosso Caravaggio Necklace “pays respect to Caravaggio, an artist who was among the first to experiment with the dramatic color, depth, light and shadow that came to define the Baroque style.”

Bulgari Platinum, Ruby and Diamond “Rosso Caravaggio” Necklace | Estimate: upon request


Rosso Caravaggio (1571-1610), Supper at Emmaus, 1601 | Collection of The National Gallery, London


While big-ticket consignments at modern and contemporary art sales usually attract more audience than that of an old masters sale, the rare Botticelli portrait made Sotheby’s first marquee sale of the year a highly anticipated one. 

The record-breaking work by the Italian Renaissance master eventually fetched an astounding US$92.2m after premium, making it the second most expensive old master artwork to sell at auction and a perfectly fitting platform for the old masters-inspired Barocko collection of Bulgari. 


The auction house also shared a post on its Instagram after the sale, dedicated to one of the sponsored pieces of the night - Bulgari's Octo Finissimo Automatic that was on the auctioneer’s wrist


Lockdowns and travel restrictions worldwide might have put the vitality of live auctions on hold, yet when livestream sales are choreographed right, they provide much potential for cross-category collaborations and embedded marketing initiatives.

Prior to this Bulgari collaboration, a similar initiative was spotted at last July’s sale, when auctioneer Oliver Barker gave his audience a sneak peek at a Rolex wristwatch that was going under the hammer in another sale after. 


Auctioneer Oliver Barker was spotted wearing a Rolex Daytona JPS, during a livestream sale in July 2020


The "Rembrandt to Richter" sale spanned over half a millennium of art history with over 60 artworks encompassing a total of four categories: Old Masters, Impressionist & Modern Art, Modern & Post-War British Art, and Contemporary Art.

As Barker brought his hammer down for each lot that contributed to the £149m (US$203.8m) sale, the Rolex Daytona was almost impossible to miss. He revealed just before the end of sale, that the timepiece on his wrist was indeed, going under the hammer in another sale a month after, which garnered £1.2m (US$1.7m) in the end. The rare timepiece also set a total of three auction records - for the most paid for wristwatch sold in an online auction, for a watch sold in the UK, and for a Rolex Daytona JPS.


Rolex Cosmograph Daytona Paul Newman "John Player Special", Ref 6264

Sold for £1,215,000, Sotheby’s London


Both the Rolex and Bulgari collaborations were proved to be a success and certainly, marked only the beginning of more similar initiatives to come. The embedded marketing strategies necessitated by the new normal, as auctioneers field bids from screens, seems to be a part of the future for the industry, as collectors adapt to the digital storytelling by the auction houses.