Monday 29th June saw a landmark moment in which Sotheby’s consolidated their delayed New York May auctions into one 74-lot, 5-hour mega auction. Consisting of three consecutive sales, the Ginny Williams Collection, Post-War & Contemporary Art, and then Impressionist and Modern sales, eventually ending in the early hours of the morning for Europe.

Overall Sotheby’s response to the pandemic was impressive. Auctioneer Oliver Barker took bids from the rostrum in an empty room in London via screens with socially distanced specialists on the phones in New York, Hong Kong, and London alongside online bids. Their format looked remarkably smart and professional and Barker adeptly navigated this ground-breaking hi-tech format with aplomb. The most effective was a split screen offered when bids were being accepted from multiple locations and bidders.

We also saw online bidding reaching new heights with a record for an online auction purchase for the Basquiat work on paper at $13.1m hammer ($15.2m incl. premium). Although not the winning bid, we noted that the same online bidder (reportedly from China) also bid up to $73.1m for the Bacon triptych, a new level for online bidding, notably his increments were only allowed at $100,000. As our specialist, Guy Jennings commented in the New York Times post-sale: “As a result of this sale we may see much more confident online bidding at a higher level than we’ve seen before. There used to be a ceiling of a few hundred thousand on internet bids.

The Bacon eventually sold to Sotheby’s New York head Grégoire Billault’s client on the phone for a $74m hammer ($84.6m with fees) after 10 minutes of bidding. A number of lots markedly saw the hammer fall rather slowly, which meant an unusually lengthy sale, no doubt caused by this new multi-screen format.

Overall, unsurprisingly the sale totals were down from last year, consignment must have been extraordinarily difficult during this period. However, the sell-through rates were extremely strong and several artist records showed encouraging prices for deserving works, most notably Helen Frankenthaler’s new auction record of $7.9m (incl. premium) for a vibrant 4-meter 1975 painting, more than doubling her previous record. From our team, Morgan Long, our Managing Director, speaking to Barron’s prior to the auction had noted the “fantastic grouping” of Latin American art, which ultimately saw 5 new artist records, including that for Wifredo Lam at $9.6m (incl. premium) and the female Surrealist Remedios Varo at $6.2m (incl. premium).

This format was an imaginative and professional response to selling art at auction in the current difficult climate and certainly showed that even the most expensive works can be sold in this environment. We do not, however, feel that it is the future. Despite Sotheby’s great efforts the format was very slow and lacked any sense of theatre. Live sales will return but for the time being, we must be grateful to Oliver Barker and the whole Sotheby’s team.

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