Bringing Art Auctions to Life Virtually

Jonathan Horwich from Doerr Dallas Valuations investigates how auction houses have adapted during the Covid-19 Pandemic

‘Never waste a crisis’ they say in the art business. The various lockdowns and Covid itself has forced the art market to adapt quickly to the new challenges we all face in our lives and businesses. When you think of the art business it’s about people and face to face meetings, parties and major auction gala openings. So how in the face of the pandemic is the industry going to manage when their customers are no longer allowed to travel or even mingle with you in any way shape or form?

Brilliantly and swiftly auction houses reacted almost overnight. Having worked in the auction industry myself for over 30 years, I'm well aware of how many great ideas were sitting on the shelves waiting for the right moment to be put into practice. Realising that it would now be impossible for people to view art works in person they switched to remote live and timed online auctions. Prior to Covid online auctions had only been mildly successful but now with no other option they found tens of thousands of new bidders who were stuck at home.  We were about to witness the reality of presenting auctions live to the public with nobody at all sitting in the saleroom. Those of you who have attended auctions will remember the buzzing atmosphere with people here there and everywhere, all bidding and crammed shoulder to shoulder. Some firms tried to have a few people all two meters apart but it just seemed silly and unnecessary.

Christie's live auction

Christie’s mounted what they called a global auction which was an extraordinary feat of engineering with auctioneers in Hong Kong, Paris and New York passing onto one another. This was literally back to back auctions spanning almost 15 hours! What was truly remarkable was the numbers, over 160,000 people were either watching or bidding from around the world; whereas normally they might expect 30,000 online viewers. The prices achieved were every bit as strong, in some cases even stronger than pre-pandemic, mainly because new people were involved and bidder numbers were significantly higher than would have been seen before in traditional sales of this type. In fact there were so many people trading to log on to watch, myself included, that it was impossible for the system to cope. They soon fixed issues with the bandwidth and one year on 160,000 + people are regularly watching the auctions in various locations around the world. 

Christie's virtual wall

To further develop the online offering new visual aids have appeared. You can now gauge the size of the picture you want to buy on a virtual wall. This is genius as sometimes in our heads it's bigger or smaller than it is in reality. In addition, some auctioneers have multiple cameras and angles to further bring the experience to life, with the ability to watch back on YouTube at the viewers’ leisure. 

Auctioneers around the world are still adapting to the new norm, however not all of them are doing auctions in exactly the same way which is rather refreshing. Some are conducting live auctions in their own homes with images and bidding increments being presented on your screen. Meanwhile the actual pieces are safely in the warehouse or not as the case may be.  

Condition reports for multi-million dollar lots are essential so that at a distance you can be comfortable with what you're buying. Covid rules allow for independent restorers to visit the rooms to do reports on behalf of the buyers.

We're only a year on however it seems like five years worth of ideas and development have been squeezed into less than a year of real time when it comes to auctions. You can now bid on either a live auction in one session with just an auctioneer and staff in the room or on a timed online auction which is spread over a week or so. Everyone is doing it in their own slightly differing ways and yet we all instinctively seem to get it.   

London Art Fair

For art dealers international art fairs are the lifeblood to their businesses as it's where they meet new clients and re-engage with existing clients; showing them exciting new pieces and discoveries for the first time. The buzz of fairs such as Masterpiece, the London Art fair and the Armoury and Frieze fairs are all suspended. The galleries who are no longer able to use their physical shops are reaching out more and more with newsletters and updates, knowing that we're all in some sort of lockdown and much more likely to read what they are sending us.  While it's not possible to go into the galleries themselves, new virtual portals have opened run by those dealers usually involved with art fairs thus allowing them to showcase on other platforms such as Love Antiques, the Bruno effect, 1st dibs and 2covet all of whom are benefitting from added interest in this lockdown world.

It's fair to say that pretty much everything is virtual in the art world now and the upshot is that for many people, buying at auction and galleries has encouraged new buyers. When lockdown ends and we get back to something near normal, I think that the art world will bounce back with a vengeance. Customers will still want to buy at auctions but will accept and enjoy attending virtually and there will be an equal number of people who have been introduced to buying art via virtual fairs and exhibitions, some of whom may have only been introduced to the art world, thanks to the pandemic.   

Our thanks to Doerr Dallas Valuations and Christie’s Sotheby’s for use of the images.

Written by Jonathan Horwich, Modern & Contemporary Art specialist at Doerr Dallas Valuations.




Notes to Editors:

About Covéa Insurance

Covea Insurance Plc is the UK underwriting business of leading French mutual insurance group Covéa, who are number 1 for property and liability insurance in France, generating over 16.6 billion Euros in premiums in 2020. 

Covéa Insurance looks after the insurance needs of over 1.5 million policyholders; delivering financial reassurance through its Standard & Poor’s A+ stable rating, as a guaranteed subsidiary of Covéa. 

The company offers motor, household, protection, pet, mid and high net worth insurance and a range of commercial insurance products, through a range of distribution channels. Employing over 1800 people, Covéa Insurance has a strong people and service ethos, having Investors In People Gold accreditation and is signatory to the HM Treasury Women In Finance Charter. It also has World Class service accreditation from the Institute of Customer Service for its Motor Claims, Home Claims and Underwriting Services teams as well as Chartered Insurer status for its Commercial and Mid/High Net Worth business.

In 2018, Covéa Insurance were recipients of the Personal Lines Insurer of the Year award at both the British Insurance Awards and the Insurance Times Awards and was the top rated insurer in the Insurance Times Broker Service Survey for both Personal and Commercial Lines.

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