Sotheby’s First Sale Conceived Start-to-Finish in Lockdown Opens Online

George Condo, Woman with Golden Hair (2018) estimated at £900,000-1,200,000. Courtesy Sotheby’s.

Countries from Asia to Europe to North America are beginning to emerge from the global lockdown imposed to stop the spread of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 but the slow re-opening has not begun to catch up with the plans hatched during what seemed like an interminable hiatus. Without a clear view of the art market beyond the lockdown, Sotheby’s had begun to generate more and more sales tailored to the unique world of remote viewing.

Since the beginning of 2020, Sotheby’s has generated $127.9 million, more than a solid Contemporary art Day sale during the marquee New York auction weeks, through online-only auctions. That’s six-fold increase on all of 2019’s online-only sales volume in less than half the time. During the lockdown period alone, Sotheby’s held 55 auctions from five of its selling locations worldwide. The sales were composed from 4500 lots which comes to an average price of $28,422. Expanding an already robust online platform, which brought in $80 million in 2019, Sotheby’s has seen since the beginning of 2020, a third of its digital bidders and buyers new to Sotheby’s.

With a clear demonstration of demand and an occluded sales channel, Alex Branczik, Sotheby’s Head of Contemporary Art for Europe, decided to organize a sale that would not try to circumvent the lockdown, but instead take advantage of both the need to source works locally and meet obvious global demand. As auction houses must be in possession of the works to sell them—and with few ways to move property around the world these days—Branczik has adapted a new sale around the current restrictions in the market.

The result is ‘I have to stay at home’, a sale of Contemporary art that closes on May 28th. The sale takes its name from an inscription on Martin Kippenberger canvas ‘Copa und Ipa’ (1986, est. £60,000- 80,000) that reads ‘I have to stay home’. It was made after the artist’s return to Dresden from a hedonistic stay on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro and is an ode to recovery and loss. The tightly curated sale is offering a total of 32 lots, each of which were sourced in London.

The sale’s highlights are George Condo’s Woman with Golden Hair (2018) estimated at £900,000-1,200,000; Anselm Keifer‘s Le Dormeur de Val (2014, est. £650,000-850,000); and Zao Wou-Ki’s Hurricane-period 28.5.65 from 1965 slated with a value of £600,000-800,000.

Among the other central works are Bridget Riley’s Measure for Measure (2018, est. £350,000- 450,000); one of Howard Hodgkin’s last works, Through a Glass Darkly (2015-16, est. £100,000-150,000); Grayson Perry’s 1994 work, Trapped in Suburban Hell (£60,000-80,000), might also capture the feelings of many during lockdown.

The sale is structured like a live Evening sale with a few sought-after lots likely to out-perform the estimates front-loaded to generate excitement. Chief among those lots is the third work by Amoako Boafo to come to auction since his break-out event at the Rubell Family Collecting in December. Since then, Boafo has sold works for six-figure results. The £20-30k self-portrait on offer in this sale is likely to follow that trend. The small work has already received bids to £48,000 in the first few hours that the sale has been open.

“Online sales are reaching a new world of buyers and bidders. They’re offering us a vastly expanded reach; in some sales up to 50% of buyers have never transacted with Sotheby’s before” says Branczik. “The star lot of the recently online Contemporary Curated sale, George Condo’s Antipodal Reunion, sold for $1.3 million to a buyer who was completely unknown to us beforehand.”

Early bidding has not been confined to the lower-priced lots. The sale’s star George Condo work already has a single bid at the low estimate meeting the reserve for the work. The online sales at Sotheby’s have proved a strong attraction to new buyers but that hasn’t put off the regular denizens of the art market who are chasing works through their previous relationships at auction houses. Condo, in particular, is attracting competition from both old bidders and new.

Sotheby’s investment in the online sector is enabling a broadened approach to auction formats set to expand in the future. “A new generation of auctions has arrived” says Branczik. “The new digital online sales are here to stay. Following the success of recent weeks, they’re destined to become increasingly omnipresent in our world alongside ‘traditional’ auctions in our galleries.”

Auction houses are continuing to adapt their offerings as virtual and online realms loosen. “I expect that we could see many more of our live auctions move seamlessly to an online format” notes Branczik. “However, Sotheby’s is also rolling out an expanded range of auction formats for the new landscape, such as silent auctions and virtual live auctions, streamed to collectors across the world but without an in situ audience.”

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