Some, such as Lyon & Turnbull’s Gavin Strang, stood on the rostrum speaking to an empty room for up to 12 hours as live online-only auctions became the norm.
Occasionally a local authority busybody challenged a firm in their vicinity only to discover that auctions could be held online (who knew?), safely, behind closed doors. They quickly relented and allowed matters to proceed.
Government guidance during this time was not as helpful or as clear as it could be. It began by proclaiming that non-essential businesses had to close before amending the wording to clarify that this meant closing premises to the public.
Auction houses that had shut their doors and cancelled sales quickly realised there were ways to get back to business. Offering free storage for an extended period was just one of the measures they put in place to oil the wheels as firms returned to stage their own live online-only sales.
As the year progressed, moving all sales to live online only was the preferred choice but not the sole option. More auction houses tried timed online sales, or – for those that had already been using the format for some time – increased the number of timed auctions they were holding.
Sotheby’s held more than 400 timed auctions, generating sales of over $570m, over three times the volume and over seven times the value compared with 2019. Christie’s held 205 timed sales versus 83 the previous year.
UK provincial auction houses followed. More than 100 firms held timed sales on thesaleroom.com (owned by ATG’s parent company Auction Technology Group) this year including major players such Tennants, Sworders, Cheffins, Dreweatts and Woolley & Wallis.
The key tenets of fresh stock and good cataloguing ensured buyers flocked to the goods and consequently sell-through for timed sales has been encouraging.
Forum Auctions enjoyed a rate above 90% across the year in its timed sales. Fellows moved its Designer Collection auction to a timed sale in June and was rewarded with a sell-through rate of 91%. Its online jewellery sale in the depths of the first lockdown in April went even better with 93%.
Towards the end of the year Essex auction house Reeman Dansie decided to move most of its sales in November and December to timed, holding nine such auctions that ended between November 22 and December 6. From fine art and ceramics and glass to watches and jewellery and the contents of a music shop, the sales delivered a hammer total of £455,000.
Auctioneer at Reeman Dansie Daniel Wright said: “We were extremely pleased with how the auctions performed. It was a leap of faith necessitated by the second lockdown which prompted us to transform our anticipated calendar into a series of specialist timed sales.
“We rapidly found that the adaptability of timed auctions makes them a very useful tool in our armoury. They were very quick and easy to catalogue and publish, and the ability to promote and adjust starting prices and reserves while the sales are in progress allows for greater flexibility than is offered by the traditional sale format.
“Half of all buyers across these sales were new clients for us. In 2021, we anticipate using timed auctions across our sale calendar with greater frequency.”
A more radical approach is being taken by 1818 Auctioneers in Cumbria. Its advert in last week’s ATG showed a roster of more than 130 sales for 2021. All of them are currently set to be timed auctions. In 2019 the same firm held just one timed sale.
While timed sales have increased in number and new records for lots sold in such auctions were achieved, live sales still account, for now, for the lion’s share of sales by value.
The second lockdown in England prompted Chiswick Auctions to take its own approach to scheduling live sales. It held back a large number of events and ran 13 separate live auctions in three days from December 2-4.
Almost 3000 lots were offered and a hammer total of £1.7m was achieved.
Leigh Osborne, owner at Chiswick Auctions, says: “We had 1300 different buyers, of whom only 40 came to the viewings. Our watches sale was the biggest it’s ever been with £360,000 hammer.
“From March onwards next year every month we’ll be holding eight sales over three days. The demographic for each specialist sale is different and the technology enables us to hold separate sales concurrently.”
While finding the best ways to conduct their own business during lockdown, auction houses were also quick to support good causes as well, including various NHS charities.
By early summer almost £400,000 had been raised by firms such as Omega Auctions, Dix Noonan Webb, Cheffins, Hansons, Lyon & Turnbull, Forum Auctions and Ewbank’s. And the efforts did not stop there. By the end of the year Fellows, for example, had hammered down almost £200,000 worth of items for charities.