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Christies’ Cancels Coronavirus Confusion

Updated: Jun 30, 2020

Recognising the significance technology and the online world Amit the covid-19 pandemic

Uncertainty. That’s the word that marks 2020 thus far and it doesn’t appear as though that will change any time soon. Store fronts are closed, employees are on furlough and businesses big and small are searching for whatever possible solution is available to keep themselves afloat. Physical art exhibitions have been locked down globally. The adrenaline from sitting inside a live sales room and the everydayness of being a bustling collector of luxury items has vanished from the agenda for auction houses. Covid-19 has remapped the future of consumerism worldwide and Christie’s auction house seems to have laid solid groundwork on how to evolve with the changing tides.

Famously regarded as one of the world’s oldest and most successful auction houses, Christie’s has endured turbulence from world wars, the great depression and the 2008 market crash. More recently, the company has combatted closures due to protests in Hong Kong (one of the company’s major hubs) and a devastating worldwide pandemic. The auction house’s survival throughout this turmoil can be accredited to constantly adapting to the ever changing world around them, positioning themselves above their competitors by constantly reconfiguring and experimenting with virtual outputs.

An online auction is not necessarily a new concept for Christie’s or other auction houses. Sotheby’s Auction house, the infamous rival of Christie’s who alongside them hold a duopoly over the luxury auction world, was at the helm of modernising the auction industry with its BidNow program that launched in 2019 which allowed for a more seamless online auction layout, and in 2017, Christie’s closed their South Kensington location in London to focus on developing their online presence and subsequently conducted their First Open online auction in May that year.

“Christie’s continues to adapt to meet the needs of our clients and plan for the future as every business must."

"Following our success in leading the development of online-only art sales and growing our global client base through our investments in Asia and other regions, we are considering shifting more sales into our key regional hubs and online.” Guillaume Cerutti, the Chief Executive Officer of Christie’s said in a statement in 2017 regarding their move.

It is this ability to mould with the times that has allowed for Christie’s to flourish even in the midst of a storm as impactful as a worldwide pandemic. The British auction house increased the volume of its online sales by 73 percent between January and July 2020 and saw a 35 percent increase in new buyers compared with the same period in 2019. Having previously invested in the use of technology for their online sales and recognising the trajectory of contemporary living, allowed for a more seamless reinvention of the wheel.

“In the olden days, online and online-only sales generated just a quarter of our turnover. This is going to change. This is the moment of truth for online sales. Christie’s will continue to invest in online sales and our digital experience, recognising that this is our primary channel for attracting new buyers and bidders,” Dirk Boll, President of Christie’s in Europe, Middle East, Russia and India said in an online press briefing in February.

Christie’s has since announced a new and innovative “relay” auction to begin at 8 p.m. (Hong Kong time) on 10 July. ONE: A Global Sale of the 20th Century will replace its major New York gala-style evening sales that were initially scheduled from 15 May until 22 June. The auction will start in Hong Kong and will move in real time to Christie’s showrooms in Paris, London and New York where a different auctioneer in each region will lead each part of the sale and will include Impressionist and Modern, Post-war and contemporary art and design. The auction house says the entire event should unfold across roughly two hours, ending at 10 p.m. in Hong Kong or 10 a.m. in New York.

“The new relay format replaces the sales scheduled the week of 22 June, and we felt it is an innovative solution that is right for the moment. It will engage our clients globally, offering a live experience, where possible and maximising our online capabilities.”

Giovanna Bertazzoni, the co-chairman of Impressionist and Modern art, said to S.I.R.I.U.S. in a phone conversation. She described the auction as a “hybrid-format concept sale” and said it is a way to “adapt and innovate”.

Bidders will be able to participate online and watch via a live stream and have the option to attend in person in areas where lockdown measures have been eased enough to allow for live audiences.

“Bidders will be able to participate both online, via Christie’s LIVE online bidding channel, and where regional, government advice allows, clients and phone bidders will be welcomed in each salesroom location,” Bertazzoni said.

In addition to this exciting new and flexible auction format for ONE: A Global Sale of the 20th Century, Christie’s announced on Friday, 29 May, that they will host a whopping total of 22 luxury sales - live and online - over the course of June and July with more than 1,500 lots of jewels, watches, wine, handbags and accessories. With growing client confidence in online transactions as a result of Covid-19, they announced that the online auctions will include their highest-valued lots; including a rare, 2013 Hermes Himalaya Niloticus crocodile leather Birkin handbag with white gold and diamond hardware and a 28.86-carat diamond ring that has a presale estimate of between US$1 million and US$2 million, making it the highest-valued lot ever offered at a Christie’s online-only sale.

In addition to the new relay auction and large increase of auctions held online, Christie’s is collaborating with Mark Seliger Studios and RAD (Red Carpet Advocacy) in a joint fundraising and advocacy campaign online auction, RADArt4Aid, to benefit multiple COVID-19 relief organisations. The auction, that is currently being held on, features 26 of American photographer, Mark Seliger’s most celebrated portraits. Seliger is known for iconic portraits of celebrities and politicians and is contributing limited-edition prints from his archives to raise as much money as possible for charity. 100% of the proceeds will of the sale from each portrait will be donated to the subject of the portrait’s charity of choice.

With the uncertainty of our future, the flexible manner of Christie’s online auctions while allowing clients in reopened locations to still experience the excitement of an auction room has given Christie’s a leg-up against its competitors. Christie’s has a reputation for expanding what is possible for an auction house and in this case finding a new way to make an online auction as exciting as being in the auction room was a beneficial move. Clients that might be fearful of the pandemic even after a city reopens still have the option to participate in the auction online. In contrast, Sotheby’s still intends to go ahead with its in-person 20th Century Sales auction in New York in the week beginning 29 June.

“Pending the lifting of certain restrictions and confirmation from the relevant authorities that we can proceed,” a statement says. “Clients and visitors can expect extra precautions to ensure the safety of our employees and visitors, as well as creative opportunities for those wishing to preview our exhibitions and participate in our auctions - from in-person to virtual appointment viewings to enhance digital experiences. We will announce a more detailed schedule in due course, including relevant exhibition plans.”

The Sotheby’s sale was original scheduled for 15 May, and by postponing the auction rather than moving it online the auction house is taking a bigger risk. Despite already having an online presence the company decided to take a different route to Christie’s and it will be interesting to see the outcome from each auction. Will Christies’ modernised initiative benefit them exponentially more than their counterpart? Will Sothebys’ refusal to adapt to the pandemic era we have experienced since the turn of the decade hinder the outcome of their sales? It is all uncertain.


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