Knocked down in lockdown: reinventing auction houses for the coronavirus age

Sotheby's: auctions continue through pandemic
Sotheby's: auctions continue through pandemic

Unable to hold conventional events, auction houses have gone from 'filming theatre to making television'.

Art auctions operate like a choreographed dance. Paddle up, bid in, a subtle nod, an affirming grin. But with the hundreds of participants who place bids not able to be in one room, and the international specialists who fly in to field bids from their clients now grounded, it is clear that coronavirus has forced this industry to switch to a new routine.

Having to make changes in their work practices is not new to the likes of Bonhams, Christie's and Sotheby's. These prestigious auction houses were all founded in the 18th century and, as times changed, implemented telephones into their bidding systems, followed by online bidding.

"Investment in digital enhancement and adaptability is key," Cat Manson, global head of communications at Christie's, told Campaign. "Our clients have embraced our creative presentation and sale format combining live and online experiences. Globally, while this period of uncertainty has been unsettling on all fronts, it has also brought forward change and encouraged creativity."

Christie's has found its digital platform and virtual galleries to be a "vital channel" to engage with clients. Through its app, customers are able to view art via an augmented-reality function that "hangs" artworks on to the wall of the room the user is in.

Manson added: "We already had many online tools in place that aid business continuity in a remote working environment, including our online consignment tool, enhanced online preview capability for our catalogued property through our virtual galleries, an industry-leading WeChat mini-site for clients in Asia and other social media outlets throughout the world and our online chat tool.

"We also have a clever augmented-reality tool used during our recent global ONE sale [focused on 20th-century art]. As a result, our digital reach to clients and prospective collectors is unmatched, with 1.5 million users on Instagram across accounts, a billion active users on WeChat and a rich digital content platform that can continue to engage collectors daily during this interim period."

With the latest technology now at their fingertips, auction houses are utilising various methods to continue to deliver a luxury consumer experience. Sotheby's conducted its second broadcast auction last night (28 July) and realised more than £150m in sales. With 150,000 people tuning in, customers have shown that they are ready for an increased focus on providing an elevated experience beyond attending the physical venue.

Nigel Hilditch, head of media at Sotheby's, said that while it had been live-streaming auctions previously using a five-camera set-up, it has shifted towards a "broadcast-first" strategy – making the filming the main focus, not just an afterthought.

"We had to reimagine how people could still get a sense of theatre," he said. "Our live streams in the past were like filming a theatrical performance on a stage with a camera filming it – something we've seen a lot in lockdown. So now we have gone from filming theatre to making television.

"There is something quite magical and I don't think the magic of that auction wears off. And it isn't something that most people get to see – we are now opening it up to more and more people. The viewers are engaged by the human drama – something that can be seen in many other TV shows."

Chrome Productions produced hundreds of lot videos to accompany its broadcast of Sotheby's London auction that was set across four rooms. Globally the production used 57 crew and 22 cameras, many of the cameras were robotic to allow for social distancing in each gallery space.

Joel Mishcon, founder and managing director of Chrome Productions, which delivered both of Sotheby's broadcasts, said: "For us to be able to help one of our long-standing clients completely reimagine, through technology and production, how their business can continue to operate is an amazing Covid story.

"You now have a global, high-production-value auction experience, that makes it accessible to people around the world. We have been very careful about how we operate our crews and our set to adhere to guidelines."

During this time, Bonhams has taken the opportunity to conduct its sales in a way it describes as "live behind closed doors".

Marc Sands, its chief marketing officer, explained: "The auctioneer was on the rostrum as usual and bidding was done remotely by phone, over the internet or by leaving advanced bids. The main difference for bidders was, of course, that they were not able to be physically present. This has given us the flexibility, for example, to hold auctions in New York and LA, where there are severe restrictions on movement, with an auctioneer running the sale live in London or at our premises in Oxford."

Online bidding has been going well for Bonhams – something that it sees as reflecting a shift in the behaviour of its consumers.

"Taking a wider view, there's been a decisive change in sentiment to online both with bidding and registering," Sands added. "We have definitely crossed a line where people are now comfortable to bid on high-value items they may not have physically seen and where they are relying on condition reports. Lockdown has accelerated a process that was happening – more slowly, anyway. It's difficult to believe the shift will not be permanent."

Engaging with consumers in new ways has also proved successful for Roseberys. With people seeking entertainment at home, Roseberys created a weekly email with art and antique tips, activities and behind-the-scenes news of Roseberys and its staff.

Marketing manager Peigi Mackillop said: "We have been connecting with our clients via our weekly email 'Stay at home with Roseberys', which received great praise. June 4 was our first sale since the lockdown and the following auctions have been online only, allowing only online, phone bids and absentee bids, prohibiting bidding in the room.

"We are operating an appointment-only viewing system before the sales and also accommodate video viewing. Since the sales have started again, we have had amazing results."

With digital innovations being embraced, some feel that this new approach is now a shift in the auction industry that is here to stay. The reaction by consumers proves that, with the correct offering, there is a high level of engagement and no limit to the revenue that can be generated.

Talking about the future of Sotheby's auctions, Hilditch added: "We describe the company as a 276-year-old start-up, because it's always been innovating. Maybe in the future, there is hybrid model where there are more people allowed in the room, but I don't think it goes back to how it was in the past."

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