As Covid-19 has spread, auction houses have moved increasingly online © Illustration: Katherine Hardy
An enormous amount of attention has been focused on the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on art galleries, but less on auction houses. This is perhaps because the major ones—Sothebys, Christies et al—are not in danger of disappearing, whereas there have been predictions that up to a third of art galleries could close this year.
This does not mean that things are hunky-dory in the auction world. Sothebys, Christies and Phillips have furloughed hundreds of employees and are implementing executive pay cuts. Live auctions have been pushed back or moved wholly online, and the number of sales slashed. Those online sales that have happened have been very successful, but are minnows compared with the major evening sales BC (Before Covid). Yes, Sothebys achieved $6.4m for its Contemporary Curated sale on 22 April and Phillips scored $7.9m for New Now on 4 March, but $10m+ consignments are as rare as hens teeth, and dispersal of the $700m Macklowe bonanza has been pushed back to an undefined date.
“We are entering a different world and we will have to adapt,” says Christies chief executive officer Guillaume Cerutti: “There will be long-lasting changes in the art market. But the fact that Asia is gradually returning to normal, and that a number of firms are programming live sales in the same week in Hong Kong early July, sends an important signal, that auction houses will be returning to live events.”
What will those events look like, in the era—possibly still in place this summer—of social distancing? A solution is the “closed” or hybrid sale, meaning that potential buyers can view by appointment and the auctioneer actually conducts the sale, but to an empty room or one with just a few, spaced-out attendees. Bids come in online, by telephone or “on the book”.
“I can imagine doing one!” says Oliver Barker, senior director of Sothebys and a whizz with the gavel: “But we have to think how to make the experience dramatic, how to replicate the bidding battle…” In the meantime, Sothebys has introduced Gallery Network, a buy-now market-place for art dealers—with buyers able to acquire the works directly from the auction house.
What is for sure is that no auction house I spoke to will abandon live sales completely: “We absolutely dont intend to transition to online only,” Cheyenne Westphal, global chairwoman of Phillips, told me. But in the meantime, all the auction houses are bolstering their online programming, sometimes moving previously live auctions to the web. “Lets face it, some run-of-the-mill live auctions were a pretty dull experience,” Barker says. “Those will go online, and never go back. I can imagine a situation where live auctions will become the crown jewel, reserved just for the very top lots.”
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