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Edward Whitton of Whittons in Honiton conducted an online-only auction on April 2 ‘en plein air’. Internet buyers could hear birdsong as they placed bids at the silver and jewellery sale.

The industry is adapting by switching to an online-only formula with staff working remotely and ensuring social distancing measures are respected at all times, including during delivery.

Last week, while some salerooms chose to furlough staff under the government help scheme, others held ‘live online only’ auctions behind closed doors, broadcasting sales on the internet from empty buildings or auctioneers’ own homes. Timed auctions are also an option that many salerooms are pursuing.

Most salerooms were offering free storage for sold items while some were also giving allotted individual collection times for items to be picked up to ensure no personal contact.

Council confusion

Auction house premises are on the government’s list of the non-essential businesses that have been closed.

Some councils appeared initially confused over online sales and the guidance on social distancing, with a few taking a tough line on what they deemed breaches of the Covid-19 lockdown before then backing down.

Two-thirds of the way through the March 31 auction held by Aldridges of Bath, the firm received calls from Bath & North East Somerset Council and the local Environmental Health department demanding that the sale be stopped.

Auctioneer Ivan Street argued that, using a team limited to four members of the same family, a sale format that was closed to the public but open to 847 registered online bidders was very much in the spirit of the law. He was then allowed to continue the sale that included the £18,500 Kashmir shawl reported on News Digest (page 6).

“We pinned everything on this sale, probably the last we can hold until we can get out and about again,” said Street. “We are hugely grateful to the bidders who participated, many of whom we had not met before.”

Council backs down

In a separate incident, another investigating council was persuaded to let an unnamed auctioneer continue to trade online after drawing a clear distinction between a public auction and one held behind closed doors.

The local authority later conceded: “The complaint we received referred to your business being open for public auction. This is clearly not the case if you are closed to the public. As such you are operating as an ‘Online Auctioneer’ and you do not have to close the premises. You must, however, continue to ensure that the UK Government guidelines on reducing the spread of Covid- 19 are followed.”

Lyon & Turnbull also reported a successful sale of Decorative Arts on April 1 – the firm’s first using the ‘live online’ format.

Alone in the saleroom, managing director Gavin Strang stood for 12 hours on the rostrum, fielding bids via video-conferencing software from three online platforms and phones operated by staff from home.

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Gavin Strang did almost 12 hours solo on the rostrum for Lyon & Turnbull on April 1.

Almost 1400 bidders registered online, with around 500 online absentee and 700 commission bids left before the sale. The selling rate across around 600 lots was 83% – above the norm for this sale category.

The £570,000 sale was led by the £28,000 bid for a 19in (48cm) bronze reduction of the New Sculpture classic, Sir George Frampton’s Peter Pan dated 1911.

“It was certainly the longest time I have ever spent on the rostrum, but I’m not complaining,” said Strang. “If there hadn’t been so much bidding, I might have been finished in half the time. I’m glad we were able to trade in a way which allowed all our staff and customers to safely stay at home.”

The firm plans to repeat the formula for three more sales in disciplines it believes are also well-suited to ecommerce: Contemporary & Post-War Art (April 16), African & Oceanic Art, Antiquities and Natural History (May 5) and Fine Asian & Islamic Works of Art (May 13).

Furloughing staff

Meanwhile, reports emerged last week that Sotheby’s and Christie’s have already furloughed some staff and introduced pay cuts (either forced or voluntary) for those who remain in work.

Bonhams and some regional rooms have also had to furlough some employees.

Sotheby’s is conducting some sales. Its watch department has launched a programme of weekly online auctions. The rolling seven-day format offers a swift turnaround between appraisal and sale. The sales, beginning with a 19-lot selection offered via Hong Kong closing on April 8, are additions to the existing schedule of live auctions.

While small portable items present fewer issues than those that require careful and expensive packing and shipping, Sotheby’s online auction of Old Master paintings from the collection of dealer Rafael Valls opened as planned last week and remains scheduled to close on April 8.

The firm also posted the highest-ever total for an online sale of 20th Century Design when an auction that closed on March 31 raised $4.03m (£3.25m) including premium. It had previously been scheduled as a live sale in New York.

Christie’s plans to announce more online sales in the weeks ahead across collecting categories including decorative arts, fine art, jewellery, watches, wine and handbags.

Other initiatives include an enhanced private sales site offering online viewings and immediate purchase options, while a digital ‘auction estimate tool’ has led to a year-on-year increase of 162% in online submissions.