With COVID – 19 arriving at our doorstep in the early months of 2020, little could have prepared us for the challenges that the virus has brought. With global markets crashing the art industry was gearing up for a challenge like no other. With a value of 64.1 Billion in 2019 – the global art market had firmly cemented itself as a ‘big player’ in the world economy. However, with strict orders to close and for the public to stay at home this multi-billion-pound industry was surely about to feel the full wrath of COVID – 19.
It was evident from when Boris Johnson demanded that we “Stay at Home” to protect the NHS, that COVID would have the art world in its grip. With over 795 galleries from 60 different countries closing for the foreseeable future it seemed that the virus had engulfed the art industry with two hands. With events such as the Venice Biennale, Art Basel Miami, and Art Toronto being cancelled it seemed that the joy of walking round galleries and art fairs had firmly been taken away from us. The mood in the art sector was sombre; with art fairs being valued at 16.6 Billion dollars in 2019 the cancellation of these events would surely be detrimental to the Art Market.
However, like every industry, the Art Market had to adapt and create a “new normal” that would allow the sector to try and overcome the obstacles that the virus caused. Amy Capallezzo – the chairman of the fine art division at Sotheby’s – noted that the “market is like the weather, you just can’t fight it, you just learn to be smart with it.” Within every crisis, an opportunity presents itself with social media offerings being greater than ever – it seemed evident that the Art Market and specifically the auction houses had to move to an Online Experience.
With Auction Houses making up 44% of the Art Market value – something had to change quickly to ensure the security and safety of this sector. Indeed, with Sotheby’s holding 129 online–only sales in 2019, the acclaimed Auction House already had a strong platform to dramatically accelerate their online sales program. With over 250 live and online auctions in 2020, their online sector sales grew a staggering 540% in the first seven months of 2020. It seems quite hard to fathom (pre COVID) that paintings such as Jean Michael Basquiat’s ‘Untitled Head’ would be sold for 15.2 million in an empty auction house but as with all things in 2020, the unbelievable became normal.
This “new normal” for Sotheby’s auctions came to its pinnacle on June 29th, 2020 with head auctioneer Oliver Barker describing the event as a “landmark in the online auction era.” As always, the Sotheby’s summer auction did not disappoint with works from artists such as Francis Bacon, Roy Lichtenstein, and Pablo Picasso to name just a few. However, the days of the sweaty auction rooms and the hammer being thrown down with an almighty thud had passed. These days had been replaced by a multi-camera global live stream auction which broke multiple auction records. Indeed, the auction saw the highest price for any work sold at auction in Asia this being the Sanyu’s Quatre nus, sold for $33.3 million in Hong Kong.
The evening totalled just over 363 million dollars and established 14 new auction records, the auction which was watched by an audience surpassing 150,000 – firmly confirmed it as the most popular auction in Sotheby’s history. With the online sector of the Art Market making up 10% of the markets value in 2019, the figures in 2020 show that the share skyrocketed to 37%. With staggering figures and a huge shift to the online market – it beckons the question
are the days of in-person auctions and roaming aimlessly around art fairs numbered and like everything in the 21st century replaced with an online alternative.