Earlier this year, when it became absolutely clear to every auction house that in-person auctions would be virtually impossible for the foreseeable future, the biggest players in the industry moved quickly to move their operations either further, almost entirely online. Christie’s forged ahead with scheduling four times as many online sales between early May and June as in 2019, and Sotheby’s also forged ahead with high-profile sales of sports memorabilia and works by artists critically acclaimed. Sotheby’s work has paid off: they currently have global sales of over $5 billion this year, up from their total of $4.8 billion in 2019.
The fact that Sotheby’s has managed to increase its total returns in the midst of a catastrophic pandemic is quite impressive, but the auction house also says that it has managed to attract its greatest influx of art buyers for the first time in 15 years, with a 27% increase from 2019. They say they achieved this result through a massive restructuring of their auctions — 70% of them took place online this year, compared to 30% in 2019 — and through a deluge of improved channels, so customers can more easily shop remotely.
“The beauty and important role of art and rare objects seems particularly relevant in this time of pandemic and anxiety,” Charles F. Stewart, CEO of Sotheby’s, said in a statement. “In just a few months, our global team has come together to implement a sweeping set of transformative changes to our business, many of which will continue long after the pandemic is behind us.”
Although the success of Sotheby’s may not exactly reflect the conditions faced by all auction houses, the willingness of collectors to buy works of art they have not seen in person seems to be more easier to count than many previously thought. This bodes well for the future of the art market: while crowded live auctions are a thing of the past, that doesn’t mean high-caliber exchanges are gone too.