The art world goes online with virtual auctions

The pandemic has presented new challenges for auction houses, says Chris Carter

“Pandemics, sadly, are nothing new,” as Bonhams points out. The auction house in New York is holding an online sale of two pages containing Sir Isaac Newton’s handwritten notes on Flemish physician Jan Baptist van Helmont’s treatise Tumulus Pestis (The Tomb of the Plague). Van Helmont had practised in Antwerp during the plague of 1605, during which time he had searched for a cure. “Combining powdered toad with the excretions and serum made into lozenges and worn about the affected area, drove away the contagion and drew out the poison,” Newton noted carefully in around 1667. But perhaps the best advice, much as now, was simply that “places infected with the Plague are to be avoided”. Newton’s notes were expected to fetch up to $120,000 last Wednesday when the online auction ended.

Auction houses, galleries and art fairs have all heeded that latter advice. But while the “big-name auction houses may be making great strides online… there is a lot to make up for since the Covid-19 pandemic took its toll on live events”, says Melanie Gerlis in the Financial Times. May is usually an important month in the art-market calendar. But this May, sales totals worldwide fell 97% at the big three action houses, Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips, to just $93m from $2.9bn in May of last year, according to analysts Pi-eX. “This is the lowest public auction total ever recorded for the month by the database (which tracks from 2007),” says Gerlis. 

It wasn’t all bad news, however. Car specialists RM Sotheby’s showed online auctions can work by setting a record for the highest price fetched for a car at an online auction. On 29 May, it brought the virtual hammer down on a very real 2003 Ferrari Enzo at $2.6m, including fees. Another Ferrari, a 1985 288 GTO, sold for $2.3m at the same sale.

There was also good news for art fairs. “Frieze New York, the city’s first test of whether a virtual art gathering forced by the pandemic could survive online, wound down… [in May] with surprisingly strong results, suggesting that the schmooze-centric art market may never be the same” again, says Robin Pogrebin in The New York Times. Sales from the fair were “solid”. It may even be that an online virtual element becomes the norm in the art market. 

On 29 June, Sotheby’s will be holding its high-profile New York evening sales of Impressionist, modern and contemporary art – from London. The auctioneer, Oliver Barker, will stand in an empty room, facing a bank of screens on which colleagues around the world will bid on behalf of clients. Up for grabs is a $60m Francis Bacon triptych. “This will be the very first time that I have taken to the rostrum in London in order to conduct a New York sale,” says Barker. “[It] will usher in a very exciting new era of marquee auctions... in which the best of the established live auction formats is married with the very latest auction technology.”

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