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Before the shutdown some buyers at fairs were already taking precautions.

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Without the normal run of fairs and markets as an outlet and with footfall coming to a virtual standstill for most antiques shops and galleries, even more so in the wake of the announcement last Friday of restrictions of business openings, cash f low has suddenly become a critical concern for the trade which is inevitably now looking to alternatives including ramping up the volume it sells online.

Dealer associations are appealing to the government for urgent help. While they have welcomed the relief package for business, they made calls for the authorities to provide more support.

Chief executive of LAPADA Freya Simms said: “The current situation is a devastating blow for a trade that has already suffered from difficult trading conditions. While the government’s support package is welcome, the reality is it is nowhere near enough yet.”

Secretary general at BADA Mark Dodgson said that the timing of the coronavirus outbreak made it especially difficult as it has hit just as the trade embarks on its busiest period – the spring and summer – which would usually carry it through the quieter periods later in the year.

“In terms of cash flow, it will be very hard for many dealers”, said Dodgson. “Alongside BAMF we are speaking to DCMS about how government can help. The business rates holiday will be helpful for some dealers, but not all. That said, there are opportunities for dealers to use the internet as a sales tool. For example, BADA has been helping members by uploading onto bada.org images of the objects they had taken to The Open Art Fair.”

LAPADA will shortly launch an open hub, not just for it s members but for independent dealers too, where information, news and advice can be shared and interactive virtual events created.

Simms also pointed out that, in addition to the economic impact, isolation and mental health of dealers was a real concern. “Now more than ever is the time for us to come together as a community, to share our knowledge, experience and advice with consumers who will be more eager to learn than ever before”, she said.

“Our objective is for these initiatives to help the antiques trade not simply survive, but thrive and return to ‘business as usual’ stronger than ever.”

Showground closures

Among the many cancellations last week were the major showground events such as IACF’s upcoming Newark and Ardingly fairs and the Peterborough Festival of Antiques (rescheduled from April 10-11 to June 19-20).

“We have been doing everything in our power to manage this very difficult situation,” said IACF managing director Will Thomas who added that it was “happy to support the industry by transferring all pre-paid bookings to a future schedule, even though as a business we are still incurring the significant costs of venues.”

Arthur Swallow Fairs has also postponed its events at the Lincolnshire Showground.

One London fair that did open its doors as planned on March 18 was The Open Art Fair. Despite the government’s advice earlier in the week on public gatherings and a number of dealers deciding to pull out, the organisers pressed ahead before closing at the end of the second day (see full report in this issue).

‘Live online only’

The auction calendar was much less affected compared to fairs, with most UK regional auctions going ahead at the time ATG went to press although the new restrictions on business openings had yet to come into force.

An increasing number of auction houses have decided to hold ‘live online only’ sales where bidding takes place via the internet, commission book and phone with no bidders in the room. All of Bonhams’ sales in the UK are now using this method, except Bond Street auctions which are being rescheduled.

Also changing to the ‘live online only’ format are Adam Partridge, Aston’s, Batemans, Bellmans, Dawsons, East Bristol, Eldreds, Excalibur, Moore Allen & Innocent and Watches of Knightsbridge.

Although a few auction houses cancelled their upcoming sales or rescheduled them to a late dater, auctioneers reported an active buying market last week, with a significant jump in online bidding as buyers were unwilling or unable to attend salerooms in person.

Sotheby’s reported a ‘surge’ in online buying at its Made in Britain sale on March 17 with 54% of the lots sold on the internet (see page 11). Its prints and multiples auction the following day also posted a 30% increase in online buying.

Christie’s global president Jussi Pylkkänen said: “Demand is very strong but supply will be difficult in the coming weeks… We will develop our capacity in private sales and we will adapt.”

Christie’s is launching a digital viewing room (accessible by website and mobile) to shift interest online and said it had noted a large number of buyers at its sales last week were online bidders.

Provincial auctioneers have been similarly busy, bolstered by internet bidding. According to thesaleroom.com, owned by the parent company of Antiques Trade Gazette, more lots were sold online in auctions held on the platform between March 13 to 19 than in the same period last year (54,406 versus 50,746). Average lot value (across room, phone & online) at these auctions increased 19%.

A snapshot poll of 1000 users on thesaleroom.com last week found a high level of confidence among buyers with a clear intention to continue bidding, making particular use of the internet.

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A poll of users on thesaleroom.com last week found buyers were intending to continue bidding online.

In all, 83% of respondents said they were intending to bid the same (57%) or more (26%) on thesaleroom.com, whereas for room bidding, a quarter of respondents said they intended to bid the same amount in person but an equal number said they intended to bid less using that method.

Stephen Whi t taker, managing director of Fellows Auctioneers in Birmingham, was one of many who saw brisk business last week. “The volume of bids doesn’t seem to be slowing down and people are taking advantage of the fact we have made our auctions so accessible to so many via the internet,” he commented.

“We continue to have many amazing pieces being consigned to auction.”