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Reality Check: Sotheby’s Belatedly Drops Plans for Major Live Auctions in June, Adopts New Format

Facing reality, Sotheby’s today officially abandoned what I had correctly characterized in a May 21 post as wishful thinking—its plans for live June auctions of contemporary and Impressionist & modern art. The firm unaccountably promoted that hope at a time when the Pandemic Effect had made the likelihood of actually being allowed to hold in-person sales seemed remote at best.

Now, the auction itself will be “remote.” As reported by Kelly Crow of the Wall Street Journal:

The house said Friday [today] it has decided to transform this traditional evening sale into a telethon-style format that will be live-streamed online. No collectors will be allowed to participate in the actual saleroom.

Instead, London-based auctioneer Oliver Barker plans to conduct three consecutive sales from a sleek studio set being built in Sotheby’s London.

Oliver Barker conducting a live evening sale
Screenshot from a Sotheby’s Contemporary Art sale

Rather than stand behind a rostrum facing rows of in-person bidders, Mr. Barker said he plans to be filmed facing a fleet of television screens so viewers can watch as he fields collectors’ phone bids placed via colleagues calling in from at least nine cities including Geneva, Paris, Milan, Chicago, Hong Kong and Palm Beach, Fla. He will also toggle real-time bids placed online with a click.

The sales will occur on June 29. Here’s Sotheby’s image of what its socially distanced set-up may look like (adorned with its previously announced sale highlights):

Photo from Sotheby’s

Sotheby’s owner Patrick Drahi, who is Jewish, seemed to be directly channeling an analogy made at a recent Sabbath service (via Zoom) by my synagogue’s Rabbi, who likened the trials our world is now facing to what was endured by Moses and his followers while fleeing Egypt.

As quoted by Crow, Drahi stated:

We’ve crossed the desert, and today I see we’re stronger for it.

Whether that analogy holds true for Sotheby’s remains to be seen.

Also in question is how China’s crackdown on Hong Kong and the resulting protests will affect foreign businesses there (including art auctions).

In her NY Times report about the Sotheby’s latest plans, Robin Pogrebin wrote:

Their Hong Kong sales, which were postponed from April, will take place as usual July 5-11, with the auctioneers live and bidders expected in the salesroom, given that [health-related] restrictions have been lifted. While protests have resumed there, Patti Wong, the chairwoman of Sotheby’s Asia, said this “hasn’t deterred clients from bidding.”

That optimism doesn’t seem to take into account the latest fast-breaking developments—China’s plan to limit Hong Kong’s autonomy and President Trump‘s announcement today that he would “strip away Hong Kong’s privileges with the United States, ranging from an extradition treaty to commercial relations, with few exceptions,” as reported this afternoon by the NY Times.

Here are two articles predicting that Hong Kong will no longer be “a great place for the West to do business,” as a result of these disruptions.

In less momentous news about how Sotheby’s is adapting its business strategies to today’s challenges: I had hoped to learn how its inventive, 12-lot In Confidence sale, which was Hong Kong-based, had done. To find out, I clicked on the “VIEW RESULTS” button for that sale on its website:

Screenshot from Sotheby’s website

But that only took me to the presale information about the lots that had been offered, with no sale total, let alone prices of individual lots. When I asked why the results weren’t up, a Sotheby’s spokesperson advised me to consult the first paragraph of the presale press release:

Under this novel [as in, “novel coronavirus”?!?] sale approach, bids are placed exclusively by submitting confidential written commission bids. Bidders will be notified if they have been outbid and will have a final chance to submit a best and final offer by the preset deadline, at which point the winning bidder will be established. All bidding information and results will remain confidential [emphasis added].

In other words, the results of “In Confidence” are confidential—to all but the winning bidder for each lot.

Remember how I used to gripe about the growing lack of transparency in art auctions? I had no idea how opaque things might become.

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