Vicki Wonfor, joint managing director of Roseberys in West Norwood, south London, said: “Currently we are ‘business as usual’ and are carefully watching and considering how to proceed based on those around us and government guidelines. We are putting provisions in place to work from home and work more flexible hours to avoid major commuting times for the staff if these measures are required.
“In relation to viewing and visiting our auction rooms, we are already currently asking all visitors to wash their hands immediately on arrival and are considering asking all clients to wear gloves when viewing for all the foreseeable auctions.
“In terms of the auctions we have coming up in the next four weeks, we are offering a live video condition-reporting service for those clients who do not want to or cannot attend the viewing but wish to see the pieces in a way that is not just by photographs.
“One of our business concerns, other than for the safety of our staff and customers, is the knock-on effect of what this might mean for consignments across the rest of the year and the sustainability of the business at our current level.
“Traditionally, during periods of economic adversity the antiques market has been upheld – and in fact prospered – but we are faced with a different challenge here of potentially not being able to visit clients for consignments.
“Limiting face-to-face contact for house visits will be one of the biggest hurdles to overcome.
“With our Asian art sales we have spoken to a number of clients in China and have asked if they are still buying and, as far as we can tell, they are still keen.
“We have spoken with a number of other London salerooms regarding their Asian sales and to our knowledge there is not going to be a postponement of the season at the moment.”
Sworders is putting in place contingency plans to ensure it will be ‘business as usual’ at the Stansted Mountfitchet saleroom. Ahead of the May 15 Asian Art sale – an event that attracts a multinational audience – the firm is considering the possibility of a selling format that will minimise the need for attendance in the room.
Sworders had intended to conduct the sale at the Westbury Hotel in Mayfair but instead will move the event back to Essex where the firm believes it can be in better control of the environment. If necessary, the auction will be conducted ‘live’ from the rostrum in Stansted with bids only accepted on commission, on the phone and online.
While all lots should be available to view ‘by staggered appointment’ in Essex or at Sworders’ office in Cecil Court, London, in the run-up to the sale, the auction house is also working now to provide multiple online images and detailed condition reports to aid buyers who cannot attend. Most items are being shot on video.
Sworders chairman Guy Schooling says preparing for an ‘empty room’ format will help counter some of the uncertainties created by Covid-19.
He said in the immediate term vendors are nervous. “Hopefully it won’t be necessary to close the sale to personal attendance, but it is time to be proactive and provide our clients, both buyers and sellers, with some clarity. Today, with as many as 90% of bids coming by phone or online at a typical sale, we can conduct an auction behind closed doors quite easily.”
Woolley & Wallis
John Axford, chairman at Woolley & Wallis in Salisbury, said: “Our sales are going ahead as planned and we are following government guidelines.
“There are some vendors who have been reluctant to consign but largely it has been business as usual. For our Asian art sale in May consignors are very confident. Many other Asian sales have been delayed so they are keen for ours to go ahead.
“Of course, it has had an impact, in terms of business travel for example, but the sensible thing is to assess the situation daily and take decisions following official advice. If things change, we may have to reschedule some sales but at the moment it is business as usual.”
Lyon & Turnbull
Gavin Strang, managing director at Lyon & Turnbull in Edinburgh, said: “We are trying to find a sensible path between being careful and not overly panicking. We are constantly monitoring the situation and have strategies in place and will be ready to react if things change. We are taking our cue from the major retailers.
“We’ve implemented ‘no handshakes and no close contact’ and have brought in hand sanitisers and extra cleaning and all staff are aware of protocols.
“But we have had very strong sales this week with our Asian and silver and jewellery sales both exceeding expectations. The Asian sale was strong as there has been less supply in the market due to some sales being postponed.”
Forum Auctions is continuing with its planned spring auctions, culminating with three days of sales at the Westbury Hotel from March 24-27 including its sale of the Birmingham Assay Office library.
Stephan Ludwig, CEO and founder at Forum Auctions, said: “It would clearly be naïve to dismiss the risk, but our stance is very much ‘business as usual’ and our auction calendar for both live and online-only sales will continue as scheduled.
“We naturally emphasise the importance of maintaining a safe environment for our staff and customers and are closely monitoring Public Health England’s evolving guidance in this regard. All visitors to our offices are required to first wash their hands and we have laid out our viewing areas to ensure that clients are able to maintain a safe distance from each other.
“Respecting that there will be clients who are choosing to avoid public gatherings, we are accommodating out-of-hours private viewings.
“There will of course be an impact on physical viewing in coming weeks with European and US travel restrictions and more general ‘social distancing’ behaviour.
“While in no way complacent, I feel that the evolution of remote bidding technologies has put the auction industry on a better footing to handle this sort of a crisis than would have been the case as recently as even two or three years ago.”
Dreweatts in Donnington Priory (which registered over 1100 people to bid for its £1.25m sale of the Sir William Whitfield collection last week) has contacted clients to highlight the variety of ways that bidders can take part in auctions from their own homes.
Managing director Jonathan Pratt told ATG: “We are following the common-sense approach that the government has put forward. That has meant cancelling international travel [the firm conducts regular business in Italy] and postponing some appointments with elderly clients in particular. But as much as we can it is business as usual.”
The viewing for the March 18 jewellery, watches and silver sale was going ahead as normal with added attention to deep cleaning and the offer of gloves for staff and clients.
Currently there are no changes to the sale calendar, although Pratt opined that regional salerooms could be forced to reschedule Asian art sales if the London salerooms chose to postpone the May sale series.
Fellows is another auction house that reported brisk business last week. The firm says its Fine Jewellery sale in Birmingham on March 12 was “our best and most popular auction of 2020 thus far”, achieving just under £900,000 hammer with a sell-through of 89%.
Managing director Stephen Whittaker said: “We have not postponed any future sales and we will follow the government guidelines to make sure we continue to keep our staff and customers safe.
“We are taking the current outbreak seriously but believe that we need to continue to hold auctions to support our clients, staff and customers.
“Despite following a ‘business as usual’ approach, we have put up signs around the office insisting that customers and staff sanitise and wash their hands as frequently as possible. Furthermore, we are asking all of our visiting customers to sanitise before they view.”
Philip Belcher, senior director at Bellmans, said: “Naturally, we continue to monitor the situation and take heed of the government’s advice. Our auction calendar remains unchanged and we look forward to our series of spring auctions.
“Our sales at the end of February were above budget. It included a specialised Asian ceramics and works of art sale, which had very strong prices, with very little unsold and strong internet and phone bidding, as would be expected.
“We have not seen any noticeable change in footfall for sales or valuation days. We continue to hold our regular Tuesday and Thursday valuation days at Wisborough Green and Winchester as well as offsite valuation days.”
Chiswick Auctions has messaged its clients to say it is following the UK Government and Public Health England’s advice and “that our doors are still open and our sales calendar is not affected”.
Christie’s released a statement on its website saying it that while it was “adopting a business as usual approach as much as possible regarding our live and online auctions”, it had already taken a number of steps including:
– Postponing many of its forthcoming international sales and closing most of its offices in response to the coronavirus. The firm's March and April calendar is being restructured with sales in New York and Paris put on hold for at least two months.
– Widespread changes to the Hong Kong calendar
– Employees working remotely in Italy
– In Asia, Christie’s Beijing, Shanghai and Seoul offices still operating but some staff are working from home.
– Offices are now closed until further notice in the following locations: Brussels, Buenos Aires, Chicago, Dallas, Dubai, Düsseldorf, Hamburg, Houston, Los Angeles, Madrid, Mexico City, Miami, Milan, Monaco, Moscow, Munich, New York, Rome, San Francisco, Santiago, Sao Paulo, Stuttgart, Tel Aviv, Toronto, Vienna, Zurich.
– Christie's London office remains open
CEO of Sotheby's Charles F. Stewart said in an emailed statement: "We are taking all of the necessary precautions to ensure the health and safety of our employees, clients and any visitors to our galleries around the world. In each location, we are following the advice of local government officials and health authorities and, where appropriate, have colleagues working remotely, continuing to serve clients as they normally would.
"We are technologically equipped to operate our business in a variety of scenarios. Given the increasing trend of our clients engaging with us in digital formats to discover, explore and bid on art and objects, we feel confident we can continue to deliver exceptional service and sales to our clients around the world."
Sotheby’s has made changes to its Hong Kong spring sales and also announced the sale of three Chinese artworks which will be sold to benefit efforts tackling the outbreak across Greater China at its Modern art evening sale on April 16. This sale has been relocated from Hong Kong to New York.
A spokesperson for Bonhams said: “To protect the safety of all who visit and work at Bonhams, we are taking measures to respond to Covid-19. Our clients can still participate in auctions, both live and online, and valuation days will continue at present.
“However, all other events at Bonhams salerooms around the world are cancelled until April 15. Bonhams will be monitoring World Health Organisation advice constantly to ensure our precautions are aligned. Our thoughts are with all those affected by the coronavirus.”
Phillips has decided to postpone all of its sales and events globally until mid-May.
In a statement to clients issued on March 14, CEO Edward Dolman said: “We have put in place arrangements for the vast majority of our staff to work from home. For those who do wish to engage with us during these difficult times, our teams will continue to be available online and on the phone and we will continue to share content online.
“We are closely monitoring what is happening in all of our regions on a daily basis and will keep you updated on our plans for the rest of the spring sales season as the situation unfolds.”
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