top of page

When Big Auction Houses Go Online: Christie's and Sotheby's

Two big names in the auction house world (Christie's and Sotheby's) held a virtual press conference last week to share their next appointments, as many countries, from Asia to Europe to North America, are close to exiting the pandemic lockdown.

During a conference call, Sotheby's management announced that their first contemporary art sale—the one that should have taken place in May—will take place on June 29 in New York at 6.30 pm. It will be immediately followed by an evening of Impressionist and Modern art sales.

With the reopening of some offices, customers will be able to access the spaces—to see the works that will be streamed live from London. Bidders will then virtually join the auctions by phone from all over the appointment only.

From Juy 5th to 11th, Sotheby's will shift their attention to Hong Kong, which will finally hold last April's planned auctions, with live auctioneers and bidders. Keep in mind that in the Asian market, it is not the health emergency that is worrying the art world but the ongoing riots against Beijing's iron fist.

There is also news about Christie's upcoming auctions. On May 15th, the French auction house announced a hybrid auction format with online, streaming, and in-room offers for the sale of Impressionist, Modern, and Contemporary art. The auctions will take place on July 10th in consecutive sessions from four Christie's sales outlets: Hong Kong, Paris, London, and New York.

Online Auctions: What were the results and what was the impact on customer development?

Christie's predicts that auctions will expand on the web, and that will lead to a 73% increase in sales between January and July 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. Up to today, online scheduled sales are 83, the same number that was made during the course of 2019, with a turnover of £66.9 million.

Thus far, Christie's has not disclosed the amount of online turnover achieved in this period. The French auction house declared that the trend is positive, however, and online remains the primary channel for attracting new buyers and bidders. After the lockdown, Christie's online sales reached customers in 61 countries. New customers represent 32%, while 27% were already participating in traditional auctions, and for the first time, they were purchasing via the digital channel. From the five top lots, three were purchased from existing customers, who had never bought art online before. All of this was reflected in an average sales rate of 87%.

Sotheby’s Disclosure

Since the beginning of 2020, Patrick Drahi's auction house has generated a turnover of $127.9 million. With the first online edition of Sotheby's Contemporary Art Day Sale, which ended on May 14, the sale reached a total of $13.7 million, more than double the previous record of £5 million ($6.4 million), which was established less than a month ago. The auction pushed the turnover of digital auctions from the beginning of the lockdown to $103 million dollars (which was just $8.4 million dollars in the same period in 2019). Again, during the lockdown, the average price per lot was equal to $22,254 dollars, up from $8,353 in 2019.

Private Rooms

During these quarantined times, the online world is being utilized to attract more and more customers, while waiting for the return to traditional sales in theaters. Meanwhile, private theaters are recording interesting and quickly growing results, as they have always allowed auction houses to respond differently to customer needs.

During the lockdown, Sotheby's private rooms have become an increasingly active and important part of the business with a demand that currently exceeds availability. Since the lockdown on March 20 and through May 26, Patrick Drahi's auction house made 220 sales through private negotiation in about 30 categories of objects that have an equal or greater value than $100 thousand dollars. Additionally, there were also several transactions registering at seven digits. During this period, around 25% of private sales' buyers were new customers.

These results follow two years of strong growth in Sotheby's private sales segment, with a turnover reaching two billion dollars for two consecutive years, 2018 and 2019. In 2019, private theaters exceeded 30 transactions with a price range between $5 and $50 million dollars for an approximative value of $500 million dollars. The most popular segment is Contemporary Art followed by Impressionist and then Modern Art.

At Christie's, the demand for private sales is high, as sales activity increased by almost 120% in the first four months of this year compared to 2019. The transactions recorded a price range between $30,000 and $30 million.

In April, these sales developed and saw a 49% increase compared to February. This growth can be linked to channel promotion and customer appetite in the absence of in-person sales. In this context, there was also a significant development for sales of works with prices above $5 million, which is a fourfold increase compared to the same period in 2019.

bottom of page