As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the art world is finding new ways to adapt. Barnebys spoke to Millea Bros co-founder Mark Millea about the story of their company, their online business strategy and the future of the virtual art world.
Founded by Mark and Michael Millea in 2003, Millea Bros is a boutique auction house located in New Jersey, specialising in fresh-to-market items from distinguished New York estates, private collections and institutions. The brothers bring their twenty-five years of hands-on appraisals and curation experience to the art and antiques market, along with their insider perspectives from a fine arts background. The auction house holds two main ‘Select’ sales in autumn and spring, which feature over 1,000 lots of exceptional quality and provenance. Throughout the year they also hold several ‘ABC’, or ‘Attic-Basement-Closet’ sales, consisting of lower price point items offered with no reserves. In addition to their auctions, Millea Bros runs an eBay storefront to help sell their continuous stream of high-calibre acquisitions.
Both fine arts majors, the brothers got their start in the art business world when Michael took an appraisal studies course at New York University. The class concluded with a panel discussion, one woman on the panel owning a Manhattan gallery that was hiring. Michael began working as the gallery’s warehouse manager, and soon Mark joined him. The pair worked there for several years, learning more and advancing up the chain of command until they were essentially running the gallery when the owners were travelling. After the owners bought a home in Florida, they offered to sell the gallery to the Milleas but the pair could not make it work. Still enamoured with the art world, the brothers founded their own company in 2003 and worked tirelessly to create their dream business from the ground up.
Online marketing has always been essential to the way Millea Bros operates – in fact, the only sale of theirs that was not listed online was their very first auction in 2004. Prior to the pandemic, their two major ‘Select’ sales were run more traditionally, with a live audience and in-person bidding as well as phone and online bidding. The smaller ‘ABC’ auctions have always been online-only with a streamed broadcast, a method that Millea Bros would like to expand. The house’s familiarity with online sales has been a great advantage during the pandemic, as it’s meant they haven’t had to majorly overhaul their strategy. Mark Millea said that not much has changed other than that people no longer visit the gallery, and that “everything is going really well… if anything, things are going better and performing better.”
Because of the increased sales and demands on their site, Millea Bros requires a robust software that can keep up with their business. They had previously been using two separate auction management programs, but the dated technology prevented Millea Bros from fully accessing and utilising the sales data that is essential to their business.
"I think some of this is going to stick; there were already fewer people going to auctions... I think it’s just gonna stay online."
Going forward, Millea Bros plans to build onto their online marketing strategy. Online auctions have been steadily growing in popularity for several years, and this trend shows no sign of reversing. To stay ahead of the curve, Millea Bros will replace their traditional auction podium with a studio stage, from which they will film and broadcast high-quality live streams of all their sales on their website. Audiences will be welcomed once it is safe to do, but the broadcast combines the thrill and salesmanship of a live auction with the convenience of online shopping, and will be an engaging addition to standard catalogue listings.
Although Mark sees the future of auctions as being online, he does not believe that all aspects of the art world transfer over so easily. Museums, for instance, have begun offering virtual tours of their collections, but the experience of seeing art in person is not effectively replicated over a computer screen. “You need to see things like scale, which can’t be gotten from digital images,” Mark said. Selling art virtually, however, is still a booming business. Consumers have become more comfortable shopping online, and are able to easily imagine the art object or antique in their homes.