It is unsurprising that amidst the turmoil of the COVID-19 pandemic, the first few months of the year saw the art market largely grind to a halt. TEFAF Maastricht, the first major art fair of the year, took place in early March by which time northern Italy was already in crisis mode; with a much reduced attendance, the fair was cut short after an exhibitor tested positive for the virus. Fast forward a few months, and the art world is adapting to the new normal; museums and galleries have begun to open with appointment bookings and masks the norm, while the auction calendar has filled up once again, albeit with a focus on online sales. So what does this mean for the value of art and antiques?
While the volume of sales over recent months has been significantly reduced, sales have continued, especially online. Art fairs have adapted to offer online access, many with virtual viewing rooms, and the internet has kept some momentum going in an otherwise quieter market. The first major test of the auction market was an ‘Evening sale’ held at Sotheby’s at the end of June; this was certainly not a return to business as usual; viewing was by appointment, there were no glitzy receptions, and there was not even a saleroom filled with paddle-wielding bidders: instead, Oliver Barker, Sotheby’s European Chairman, stood on a rostrum in London for over four hours and conducted a livestream auction with staff manning phones in front of him, as well as in salerooms in New York and Hong Kong, and with clients also bidding directly online.
This was the first real ‘occasion’ for the art market post-lockdown; all eyes were on Sotheby’s and they delivered with strong sell-through rates, good prices, and a boost of confidence shot into the market. The highest price was paid for a Triptych by Francis Bacon which sold for US$85 million; while it’s impossible to know what price might have been achieved in previous seasons, this seemed to be a fair result. Perhaps most impressive was the fact that the underbidder in China bid up to US$73.1 million via the internet, by far the most anyone has ever bid online.
The auction caused many in the art market to breathe a sigh of relief, and subsequent sales at Sotheby’s and Christie’s produced consistently solid results. However, in reality, good results at this price level don’t necessarily represent the market as a whole; as activity has sped up at different levels of the market over recent months, so more has been revealed. It is definitely a more selective market, particularly at lower levels; across the board, interest is focussed on the rarest objects (from the last Rembrandt self-portrait in private hands which sold for £12.6 million to a pair of glasses which belonged to Gandhi and which sold for £260,000), as well as on art and collectibles with investment and passion appeal; for example, the watch auctions held by Phillips in Geneva sold almost every lot making over $30 million, with no fewer than seven watches breaking $1 million, and a rare pair of Nike trainers worn by Michael Jordan sold in New York for $615,000.
Where does this leave the more traditional categories of art, furniture and collectibles? Time will tell if there has been a fundamental shift in the market, and the next few months may bring some added influence, but for now, it would appear as if we could mostly be looking at relatively modest adjustments on the whole. A British country house sale is often a helpful gauge: recently, selected contents from the Rothschild collection at Exbury House in Hampshire were sold at auction. While the provenance has added greatly to their appeal, it is still encouraging to see works of traditional furniture and works of art with four and five figure estimates selling for many times their predicted prices.
One thing is certain: as the art market overcomes these hurdles and settles into its new stride, it will be as important as ever to ensure that valuations are up to date over the coming months and years.