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Christie’s and Sotheby’s Race Through the Summer – Online Auction Recap

August 31, 2020
Francis Bacon - Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus

Francis Bacon – Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus – $84M

As the summer of social distancing comes to a close, I thought we could take a look at the auction arena as a whole and what has been going on… it seems the two big houses finally caught up on their Spring schedule and used the month of August as an abbreviated annual summer lull… but aside from the past few weeks, the auction houses have been humming along if not overheating the engine… things really started ramping up at the end of May and into June as Sotheby’s and Christie’s were working out the kinks prior to offering anything too major.

Christie’s hosted 39 online sales globally that closed in June with totals ranging from just $200K to more than $15 million… by the time they got into July, they were closing an average of 2 auctions every day! And yes, many of them were smaller auctions, with the lower sales totaling around $200K, but they also held a number of major sales – the most significant being their ONE sale, featuring important 20th Century art, which topped $400 million! How can anyone keep up with all those sales… 63 in one month?!? As I mentioned, things cooled off in August which saw just 14 auctions close and significantly lower totals – they ranged from a $15K Christie’s Staff Art Show (no comment) to a $3.9M American Art sale.

And if you thought that was a lot, Sotheby’s was full on redlining as they closed out 76 sales in June and another 75 in July… again, there were quite a few that were on the lower end of the spectrum – small watch sales, wine sales or other items, totaled as low as $30K in June and $60K in July. But the high end was very present… they hosted their rescheduled New York Contemporary Evening sale (online) in June, which topped $230M, and then their Rembrandt to Richter totaling £150M. Similarly, things tapered off substantially as we got into August with just 26 auctions closing… but that is still almost an average of an auction closing every day, and for the last two months its been averaging nearly 3 a day! Who is buying all this stuff?!?

Now, perhaps I am being a bit hyperbolic… after all, it is not like all of these auctions that are occurring are seeing blockbuster results… we’ve regularly covered sales this summer with moderate to poor sell through rates – Christie’s 19th Century Sale sold just 35%! So, what gives?

I think there may be a few things at play here… first and most obviously being making up for lost time from the shutdown. The sales that were scheduled to take place needed to be rescheduled, which overlapped with a preexisting schedule – that makes sense. On top of that, while auctions are usually hosted in-person in various cities, now they are all piled on top of each other in an online calendar (to clarify, the various auction house locations still host the sales, but they are presented together on their websites). Finally, and perhaps most speculatively, is that they are hedging their risk if things take a turn for the worse by unloading as much as they can as quickly as possible. I’m hopeful given things have recently been trending in the right direction, but if we were to experience a second wave as we reopen heading into the winter, I think the next set of major auctions will be in jeopardy of seeing less than decent results and a high amount of material withdrawn. Either way, it’s nice to see they’ve taken their foot off the gas, even if it is just for a moment. Expect things to pick up again soon!