Record Online Auctions Not Covering Shortfall
By Lauren Long
In an effort to recoup significant losses in revenue due to saleroom closures and event cancellations, auction houses have resorted to online sales in recent months. Although some companies have announced record online earnings, market data paint a less rosy picture.
With the nixing of major auction series, the combined worldwide revenue from Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips plunged 40 percent year-on-year in Q1, from USD 1.4 billion in 2019 to just USD 800 million this year, according to London-based art market data analyst Pi-eX. The downward trend is even more drastic for May, traditionally an important auction period, which saw a 97 percent dip in total intake at the three houses, from approximately USD 2.9 billion to USD 93 million. A total of 38 live sales were canceled or delayed during May 2020 alone.
Online sales conventionally carry less weight in terms of the auction houses’ earnings, making less than USD 2 million each on average according to the Financial Times. According to the Pi-eX report, during the last two weeks of Q1 2020, as a cascading round of lock-downs occurred worldwide, online sales at Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Phillips comprised nearly half of all scheduled auctions but only accounted for six percent of total revenue. However, consignments for digital sales at the end of Q1 were likely confirmed well before Covid-19 became a pandemic, so the modest revenues reflect the typically lower price points of online offerings. Having since diversified and expanded their digital events in the absence of live sales, auction houses have been including higher-value lots online, and record hauls via the digital platforms indicate that they are a viable if not entirely sufficient stopgap.
Phillips’ Hong Kong office organized REFRESH: RELOAD (May 20–28), a cross-category sale of modern and contemporary art, watches, and jewelry that raked in USD 2.4 million, the highest total achieved by an online sale at the house. The house moved 90 percent of the event’s 186 lots, all available to view by appointment at Phillips’ gallery in Hong Kong, where offices have been open for weeks following a gradual easing of citywide containment measures. The star lot was an over-one-meter-tall editioned gray figurine by popular designer KAWS, Four Foot Dissected Companion (2009), which exceeded the USD 77,000 high estimate to fetch USD 105,000. In line with previous trends observed in online sales, more than half of REFRESH: RELOAD’s bidders were new clients, and 42 percent under the age of 40.
At Christie’s Hong Kong, the themed sale Contemporary Art Asia: Kid at heART (May 22–June 5) raised USD 2.1 million, setting a new record in the online modern and contemporary art category for the house, although the title for most lucrative virtual event overall remains with the New York office’s USD 9.5 million sale of Hollywood icon Elizabeth Taylor’s jewels in December 2011. Kid at heART moved 93 percent of 100 lots of its paintings, prints, illustrations, and collectibles, led by a colored-pencil-on-paper illustration of a child titled Fight It Out (2002) by auction favorite Yoshitomo Nara. The work was purchased for USD 290,300, just above its high estimate.
Sotheby’s brought in USD 13.7 million with Contemporary Art Day: An Online Auction (May 4–14), organized remotely by the New York team while the actual office remains closed. The house found takers for 112 out of 117 lots at the sale, which was led by an Untitled 1988 abstract enamel-and-flashe-on-aluminum piece by Christopher Wool that attained USD 1.22 million, shy of the USD 1.8 million high estimate. Sotheby’s Hong Kong office has also been running a new ongoing thematic series titled Contemporary Showcase. Since its inaugural edition, Another World (April 28–May 4), five sales have grossed USD 2.2 million.
It is worth noting that published reports do not include results from private sales, which can be highly profitable. Sotheby’s Hong Kong for example, closed a new hybrid-format sale titled In Confidence: Selected Masterpieces on May 23. A “silent auction,” the 13-lot private sale-meets-auction of contemporary art, antiques, whiskey, and jewelry carried an estimate of USD 45 million in total. As with private sales, results are undisclosed.
Hong Kong's long-awaited live auctions—delayed from March and May—will go ahead in July. Major sale series at Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Phillips, Bonhams, and Poly Auction are slated for the week of July 5. On June 8, China Guardian Hong Kong canceled the sales it had set for July 9–10, which will be consolidated instead with the house's October series.
Lauren Long is ArtAsiaPacific’s news and web editor.
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