This week, international auction house Sotheby’s reported $2.5 billion (£1.9 billion) in sales so far this year much in part thanks to “innovation [and] adaptation.” According to a Monday report, over $285 million (£218 million) was brought in through online-only auctions and another $575 million (£441 million) was generated through private sales.
When the pandemic wreaked havoc on the world, causing many countries to implement lockdown measures around March, the art market and auction houses were wary. However, Sotheby’s quickly began to ramp up their online auctions. Between January 1st and July 31st, more than 180 online auctions were held that involved 44 different auction categories, resulting in a whopping 540 percent increase in online sales when compared to 2019. The online auctions ranged from single item sales, as was the case with a pair of 1985 Air Jordan 1s, signed and worn by Michael Jordan, that sold for $560,000 (~£430,000), to large, “multicamera global livestream” auctions that replaced marquee sales.
“The art and luxury markets have proven to be incredibly resilient, and demand for quality across categories is unabated,” said Charles Stewart, Sotheby’s CEO, in a press release. While Stewart referenced “strong customer demand” throughout the year, year to date totals for the auction house are down 25 percent overall, according to Pi-eX, an art market analytics company in London, despite their strong show in online sales. This fall in overall revenue is due to a 42 percent fall in live auction sales, which so far this year have yielded just $1.6 billion (£1.2 billion). Christie’s, on the other hand, have reportedly seen a larger decline of 53 percent for their online and live auction counterparts.
Much of Sotheby’s success in navigating such a bizarre year is chalked up to the innovation that allowed them to be more adaptable, but live auction revenue remains a key player in the success of auction houses around the world.
Other key takeaways from Sotheby’s report included an average overall sale through rate of 80 percent during the first seven months of the year. The reconfiguration of their marquee sales saw a novel approach to live auctions and the evening brought in $363 million (£278 million), which was, though, significantly less than the $692 million (£531 million) brought in by the May 2019 evening sale.
“Auction houses release detailed sales information to remind, at times like this, buyers and consignors that the art market is open for business,” former Christie’s president of the Americas Doug Woodham told The New York Times. “It’s impressive how Sotheby’s has been able to scrabble together so many sales. Because they’re owned by a telecoms magnate, they seemed to innovate faster than their competitors.”
Despite impressive navigation, the auction house has not been totally unscathed. In addition to an overall drop in revenue, the Sotheby’s did furlough roughly 12 percent of its 1,700 or so staff in April and remaining staff took significant pay cuts.