The future of art and antiques markets amid Covid-19 pandemic

Des O'Sullivan explores the uncharted territory auctioneers are entering.

An enamel badge from Duggan and Co, Washington Street West, Cork, at Purcell’s online sale on April 29 (€50-€100).
An enamel badge from Duggan and Co, Washington Street West, Cork, at Purcell’s online sale on April 29 (€50-€100).

The future of the art and antiques market forever changed or is this just a temporary blip? The answer probably lies somewhere between each of these positions.

When the pandemic lockdown was implemented it appeared everything would revert once it was lifted. Now it is apparent that this is not so.

Covid-19 has not gone away. We will have to live with sensible precautions like social distancing for some time, even as the restrictions are eased.

The auction houses of Ireland and everywhere else are in uncharted waters. Social distancing is not possible at busy viewings as we knew them, nor in crowded auctions rooms. New ways to keep the business afloat must be found.

Technology is an obvious answer but it is not for everyone or everything. Early indications from online sales around the world are that millennials are much happier to buy online than the older billionaires who populate the global contemporary art market.

Whether auction houses are prepared to sell big-ticket items online is as yet far from clear. Private sales have been growing in latter years and this trend is likely to be accelerated by what is going on now.

Christie’s and Phillips have consolidated their Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary art sales into one 20th-century week in New York — to include the London sales — scheduled at this stage for the end of June.

At the time of writing, Sotheby’s has yet to announce what is to become of its contemporary marquee sale scheduled for May 13 in New York. This sale was to be anchored by Francis Bacon’s Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus with an estimate of at least $60 million.

Sotheby’s has announced that the week long Spring Hong Kong series will now take place from July 5-11 in Hong Kong.

The auctions cover Chinese ceramics and paintings, modern and contemporary art, jewellery, watches and wine. Meantime, the full online sales programme by the biggest auction houses is drawing enthusiastic participation from collectors.

These sales have been expanded significantly across numerous categories.

In Ireland, upcoming online sales include militaria, jewellery, porcelain and collectibles at Purcells of Birr, antiques by O’Neill and Flanagan of Annamoe, Co Wicklow, leopards and globes by Sean Eacrett at Ballybrittas, Co. Laois and a two-day sale by Aidan Foley at Doneraile on May 3 and 4.

There will be a timed online collectors sale by Fonsie Mealy running from next Monday until Tuesday, May 5. There are 439 lots including literary items, limited editions, signed copies, GAA and sporting memorabilia, Republican letters, cinema posters, pub memorabilia and designer handbags.

The top lot at Morgan O’Driscoll’s online sale of affordable art last Monday evening was Dusk, Lismore River Pool by Arthur Maderson which made €6,000 at hammer. A lithograph by Henri Matisse, Nude, made €3,800 at hammer in an auction of 364 lots where most works sold.

A timed online sale of jewellery by O’Reilly’s of Francis Street, Dublin, ran to yesterday afternoon. Whyte’s, de Veres and Sheppards have postponed sales which are ready to go.

A practical problem in the lockdown has been access to secure storerooms where lots awaiting sale are stored. It seems likely that some of these sales will move online.

Meantime auctioneers are offering online valuation services. The Collector’s Cabinet sale at Mullen’s of Laurel Park in Bray is among Ireland’s postponed sales. Stuart Cole suggests that now is a time for people to hunt for treasure in their own attics.

If you do find something you think may be valuable the advice is to photograph it in clear light, include any signatures or makers marks, measuring paintings — the art not the frame — e-mail the result and he will respond.

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