Art sales haven’t been entirely dampened, they’re just moving online

While most businesses have shuttered their factories, closed stores and hit the pause button on sales, auction houses, which make their biggest splash at gatherings where collectors huddle together in hotels or galleries to make exorbitant bids for artworks, are seeing a silver lining. Overseas and here, auction houses are capitalising on the fact that collectors are stuck at home — and are online. International auction house Sotheby’s is moving live sales to online-only auctions, or pushing them to a later date, depending on what makes best sense for the category.

“In 2019 alone, Sotheby’s sold $250 million worth of fine art and luxury goods to online bidders across a mix of live and dedicated online sales. Of this, $80 million was achieved by 9,000 lots sold in 129 dedicated online auctions — 55 per cent higher than 2018, with multiple works selling for over $1 million,” says Edward Gibbs, chairman, Sotheby’s India.

In March, by when several countries had already declared various degrees of lockdown, Sotheby’s conducted 14 online auctions across categories that included wine, contemporary African art, jewels, 20th-century Middle Eastern Art, and others, totalling $24 million — that was more than a quarter of what Sotheby’s total online sales amounted to in 2019 achieved in just one month, says Gibbs. “Now, 25 more online sales have been planned for April, including the weekly online watch auction, presented in a rolling sale format with a new selection of watches being unveiled every seven days.”

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Mumbai-based Saffronart, which started out as an online auction house, has conducted four art and jewellery sales in the last month alone, generating around Rs 5.75 crore, says Dinesh Vazirani, its founder. “After the financial crisis that roiled markets globally in 2008, it took the art world some seven years to recover. The learning was to be prepared through other sales channels, across price points and mediums,” he says. His point is that with remote technology and cloud connectivity, most auction houses are equipped to reach their customers one way or the other.

Sonal Singh, managing director of Christie’s India, says the auction house is also looking at conducting what it calls its “auctions in a box”. Think of a regular art auction in a brick-and-mortar facility complete with artworks and auctioneer, but no seated audience. “The audience will be tuned in digitally, and watching and bidding,” says Singh. Online sales accounted for $270 million of Christie’s total sales of around $7 billion in 2019.

Online buyers make for almost 64 per cent of Christie’s total clientele, says Singh. In a company announcement, Christie’s EMEA (Europe, Middle East, Africa) President Dirk Boll said: “Alongside the existing calendar of sales announced earlier last week, we have moved from a scheduled nine sales to 40 online across April and May. The topics range from jewels, handbags, watches, collector sales, photography, science and natural history to all parts of modern and contemporary arts.”

The other channel to take priority will be “private sales”, which are continuing to drive business for the bigger auction houses.

Christies’ new, enhanced “private sales” site offers viewing and purchase options for collectors of fine and decorative arts, jewellery and watches. And a refreshed calendar of online sales provides collectors with continued opportunities to bid and buy. A Sotheby’s spokesperson in London says that besides online sales, its private sales are a vibrant side to the business and had fetched around $1 billion last year.

“There is an unmistakable continued appetite for buying art and for new buyers to enter the market place. Around 25 per cent of buyers in recent sales have been new to the company and, in some sales, this figure has been as high as 50 per cent,” says Gibbs.

However, given the Covid-19 pandemic, Sotheby’s has decided to cancel its “Boundless: India” sale in Mumbai in November. Gibbs clarifies, “Sotheby’s has no intention of closing its office or operations in India. There will be an India art-focused auction in September this year.”

Does all this mean that the traditional art auction, with champagne and hors d’oeuvres and the excitement of watching a tussle between two bidders live, is a thing of the past? “I think it will return in due course,” says Vazirani. “People are social by nature, but we need to give it three to six months.”

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