FOR Gavin Strang, Managing Director of Lyon & Turnbull, the auction room buzz is unlikely to be usurped. But online sales follow very closely.
Lyon & Turnbull, Edinburgh’s venerable auctioneer, stepped up its operations in the digital realm soon after the pandemic took hold in March.
And it’s been a resounding success, so much so that the firm has strengthened its team by appointing three new specialists, covering watchmaking, decorative arts and design, as well as ceramics and European art objects, the month last. It now has around fifty employees.
“Business has gotten pretty crazy,” said Mr Strang, who has worked for Scotland’s oldest and biggest auction house for 18 years. “May he go on long.”
The transition to online auctions has been at breakneck speed, with photos and video footage having to be taken quickly of the items Lyon & Turnbull had been preparing to put under the hammer in Edinburgh on April 1. It was crucial that those selling the lots approve the move online.
“They were all behind us, which was great,” Mr Strang said. “We needed that first, and once they said yes, we went for it.”
While the excitement of a live auction on the Lyon & Turnbull sales floor is probably impossible to replicate, Mr Strang was impressed by the buzz online events can generate. And that required learning a whole new set of skills for himself.
The first auction took place over a 12-hour “marathon”, with the auctioneer remotely receiving information in the ear of his colleagues as the bids came in. of only two people physically in the auction room. “It was unbelievable, it was a marathon session, but that was partly down to the number of bidders,” he said. “The sale actually went better than the previous sale in the same category, which we had in October (last year). The sale rate was higher and the average lot value was higher.”
While Mr. Strang is more used to working on a floor at a sale, reading body language and making eye contact with potential bidders, the online auction is entirely different.
“As an auctioneer, that changes things dramatically,” he said. “Traditionally an auction is a bit like theatre, you have a room full of people and you talk to the people in the room.
“I was going to say it was like going from auctioneer to TV star, but actually TV is so old fashioned, as my kids would say. It’s more like online streaming. You’re a Youtuber, rather than a TV star. It’s just playing on camera.
He added: “It slows things down a lot. Traditionally an auction can be 80 lots per hour, 100 if you’re lucky. But now it’s 30-50 lots per hour, so that’s cut the time to sell in half, because you factor in any delays there might be in people’s internet connections.
“And also, when you have someone in front of you, you can tell whether or not they are likely to bid again. Here, you have no idea. You just talk to the camera. You implore people to house and give them a few extra seconds to click the mouse again.Many people who have gotten into online auctions are newbies, so again, you need to give them time to get used to it.
Lyon & Turnbull achieved remarkable online sales. In June, a rare book auction produced a record for an online auction when a first edition of Harry Potter & The Philosopher’s Stone sold to an international buyer for £125,000. The following month, a seascape by famed Victorian painter William McTaggart went under the hammer for £45,000 in a specialist sale of Scottish paintings and sculpture, which saw 100 lots out of 103 sold.
The auction house, whose roots date back to 1826, achieved a ‘total hammer’ of between £11m and £12m in its last financial year, with turnover of around £4m sterling.
Mr Strang said shoppers are spending more on traditional art and antiques than they have in some time, sometimes with money they would otherwise have spent on holidays but for the pandemic.
“In times of crisis, people tend to be a little more traditional,” he said. “The other thing is that people are at home. They look around their homes and think… I’d like to redecorate, I’d like to hang a nice picture on the wall, I’d like a nice Georgian bookcase. They invest in their family environment and we see the benefits.
Mr Strang completed a degree in Geography at the University of Edinburgh, leaving him with a love for old maps, then an MA in Philosophy, Decorative Arts at the University of Glasgow. After an internship at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, he entered the world of auctions with Christies in Glasgow in 1997. “I loved the cut and the thrust of the auction room,” he said. -he declares. “The hunt for buried treasure, the glamor of sales. The speed of the whole process. I liked it.”
Three years before he joined Lyon & Turnbull in 2002, the company had been taken over by the former board of directors of the Phillips auction house in Scotland, backed by Sir Angus Grossart. Sir Angus, a well-known patron of the arts, remains chairman.
“We have seen the major international auction houses constantly back down, and it [has] has created a fantastic opportunity for Lyon & Turnbull, in this mid- to high-end market,” said Strang.
“We’ve continued to push that, focusing on things like Scottish art and collectibles sales, and we’re now one of the top five auction houses in the UK, discount houses international auctions.
While the prospect of a coronavirus vaccine has given hope for a return to normal life by spring, Mr Strang said that would not mean the end of online auctions. “I suspect room auctions will come back to some degree, but things were going more online anyway, because people are running out of time,” he said.
“Fewer people want to spend an entire day sitting in a sales room, especially if they’re only interested in one or two lots. The technology has now gotten so good that people are doing it from their phones. It’s the future.
“One thing that’s still important is the ability to view the items. If you’re making a big purchase, a lot of people like to come in and see the thing.
“But not everyone. We sold a first edition of Harry Potter online for £100,000 at the height of the lockdown to someone halfway around the world.