How auction houses are responding to the coronavirus: consolidations and online auctions

Christie's will not hold its major 20th-century sales in New York in May

As art fairs move online to provide remote viewing, auction houses are likewise working to adapt to the coronavirus crisis. Christie's is restructuring its auction calendar in response to the pandemic.

It will not hold its major 20th-century sales in New York in May, and will consolidate these with the 20th-century sales due to take place in London in June.

If they do go ahead in June, this is significant for London: the May sales are the most watched on the auction calendar, with the starriest lots going under the hammer, while the June sales follow the art market activity of Art Basel and often pale in comparison.

Bertold Müller, Christie’s managing director of Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, said the June auction will be smaller and intensively curated, owing to the present state of the market.

Müller points to Christie’s Yves Saint Laurent sale, which was held months after the 2008 financial crash and went on to become a success. Although, he thinks the economic fall-out from the Coronavirus is likely to be much greater.

In terms of Middle East activity, Christie’s has moved its April 11 watch sale to October. This comes after the move to merge the planned spring Middle East modern and contemporary sale with autumn's London sale, a decision that was made before the pandemic.

Sotheby’s 20th century Middle East auction is still scheduled to go ahead on Tuesday, March 24 in London. A Sotheby's spokesperson said bidding would be available online and by telephone.

Both Sotheby’s and Christie’s are also turning to digital solutions for auctions, with enhanced virtual previews, online-only sales and more bidding activity to take place remotely for its live sales.

At Christie’s Prints & Multiples auction in London on March 18, 80 per cent of the lots were sold to online bidders, which made up 87 per cent of the value of the sale.

Similarly, the recent Sotheby’s London sale of British art saw 85 percent of bidders using the online platform (53 per cent of winning bids), up one-third from the equivalent sale last year.

This online activity is not reflected across the  industry, however, with only one third of Sotheby's London modern and contemporary South Asian sales coming from sold to online bidders.

Why online auctions aren't straightforward

Though the move to remote auctions and online viewing will have positive effects on the environment and on art professionals' travel budgets,  the overall industry benefits are yet to be determined. It is not clear, for example, whether the use of online preview rooms is intended as a supplement to fair activity or a year-round service provided by art fairs.

The reasoning behind Art Basel launching its online rooms four months before its actual fair, aren't also entirely self-evident. Frieze fairs will soon follow suit, but not as a replacement for its cancelled New York fair, says a spokesperson.

For the auctions, live and online sales are governed by different legal frameworks, and there is also a price cap at which online sales operate.

Rather than going online-only, Müller says that Christie’s will be pursuing a “two-stream” approach, of part live sales, part online only for the time being.

At the same time, there are some glimmers of good news in terms of a return to normalcy: after weeks of being closed, as of yesterday Christie’s has re-opened its Asian bureaus, including Hong Kong, Korea and mainland China.

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