To buy or not to buy? - Auction houses slow to respond to Covid-19

Published by Alice Jaspars on April 22nd 2020, 2:11pm

In the profession of being ahead of the curve, the contemporary art world’s delay in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic has been something of a surprise.

Auction houses from Christie’s to Phillips have made the decision to postpone previously planned auctions until late June at the earliest, while Sotheby’s are yet to disclose their policy amid the global coronavirus pandemic.

According to The New York Times: “auction houses now find themselves in uncharted territory, trying to find a way to keep their businesses afloat even as the future of buying art looks as if it may be forever changed.”

Amy Cappellazzo, the chairwoman of the Fine Art division at Sotheby’s has said that: “I’m thinking really seriously about what the online experience is for our clients.

“In effect, we’ve been in the live theatre business. Now we’re segueing into what is more like live streaming. The truth is, that revolution has been underway for some time.”

The example of Banksy’s Girl With Balloon, which was shredded upon the banging of the auctioneer’s gavel, is a clear example of the importance of theatre in auctions in recent years.

As in all industries, time is of the essence, though planning is complex in a situation as uncertain as this. For the art world, the spring sales set the tone for the remainder of the year, with the combined sales at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips raising $2 billion in their five-day spell in May last year. 

The New York Impressionist, Modern and contemporary art sales at both Christie’s and Phillips have been moved to the final week of June, much like the London sales, while Hong Kong sales have been moved to July.

Chairman and chief of Phillips, Edward Dolman, said that: “For certain higher-priced objects, the jury is still very much out on whether an online-only sale without opportunity for proper viewing can truly maximize value.

“Once you get to a point where people see online sales maximizing or exceeding value, that would be the tipping point; that’s when you’ll see our business going broadly online.”

While some see online sales as the future of art auctions, former Christie’s executive, Brett Gorvy, disagrees.

He says: “The auction itself is high drama — gladiator sport.

“When we get back to a degree of normality, it will return.”

Only time will tell whether Gorvy’s hypothesis in correct. For the foreseeable the doors of auction houses across the world remain shut.

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Authored By

Alice Jaspars
Culture Editor
April 22nd 2020, 2:11pm

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