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A Qing embroidered kesi red and black robe from the family of William Orr Leitch (1871-1948), engineer in chief of the Chinese government railway, estimate £1500-2500 at Sworders on May 28.

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In accordance with social-distancing rules, these will typically be held by an auctioneer alone in the saleroom with the input of a handful of staff working remotely. Some firms will also be using timed online auctions.

Mallams, one of many UK regional firms that temporarily closed their doors on March 23, has taken the decision to begin selling remotely in early June via live online only auctions. “After looking at recent sales, and particularly the online-only Asian art sales that Christie’s have run for a number of years, we felt this was the format that we should adopt,” said director Robin Fisher.

“Vendors have been very positive and understanding.”

The revised calendar will include the firm’s traditional two-day sale of Asian art in Cheltenham (now scheduled for June 3-4), with more than 700 lots, and an Oxford two-day of Jewellery, Watches, Silver & Objets de vertu sale on June 17-18.

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A diamond and gem-set bracelet by Andrew Grima, unsigned, London 1962, estimate £3000-5000 at Mallams’ sale on June 17.

The merchandise offered was consigned pre-lockdown before the saleroom closed and many of the staff placed on furlough. While Mallams is continuing valuations by remote means, Fisher said the firm is not physically receiving any new consignments.

“Travelling to a saleroom does not qualify as an essential journey and using couriers presents unnecessary risk. We have decided to wait until the offices reopen.”

However, provisions have been put in place to provide ‘contact-free’ delivery to buyers by courier, and free storage is being provided until travel restrictions are lifted.

The new normal

Online sales – whether live online only or timed online – have become the new normal in the market since March with strong results posted in a wide range of categories, encouraging more auction houses to move to this format.

For example, Gorringe’s weekly sale held as live online only on April 20 attracted more than 900 bidders on thesaleroom.com and achieved a sell-through rate of more than 92%.

A timed sale of watches held by Fellows that ended on the same day attracted 1600 registrants – a house record for a timed sale – and achieved a healthy 87% sell-through rate.

Sales formerly postponed by Special Auction Services and Hansons are also being rescheduled as online events.

A camera and photographic auction at SAS in Newbury (postponed from March 24) will now be a timed online sale on thesaleroom.com finishing on May 11 with a collectables sale (previously March 31) closing on May 14.

The firm’s first online-only live sale will be a Jewellery, Silver, Coins, Pens, Objets d’Art and Watches auction on May 21.

SAS director Neil Shuttleworth said the firm is offering a pack and postage service by courier or Royal Mail. He added: “We are also offering free storage post sale for a reasonable amount of time to help bidders pick up when it is safe to do so. We will be introducing a good mix of both live online only auctions and timed online auctions with a great variety of lots.”

At Hansons a trio of sales in Etwall, Derbyshire and Bishton Hall, Staffordshire will become live online events. These are Historica, Coins, Banknotes & Antiquities (May 6-7), Fine Jewellery, Watches & Silver (May 13-14) and the four-day country house sale at Bishton (May 21-22 and May 25-26).

Dawsons in Maidenhead also unveiled its first live online-only sale last week, releasing a catalogue for a jewellery, watches, silver and fine art auction on April 28.

Fresh line-up

As reported last week, Sworders is launching a new calendar of online-only and timed online auctions.

The major changes include a monthly timed online format for the Homes and Interiors sales (previously fortnightly live events) and the addition of a monthly live online sale of between 300-400 lots of watches and jewellery.

Timed online sales, comprising goods already catalogued and stored, will also be conducted for Wine (May 8-17), Coins and Stamps (May 15-24), Designer and Luxury Goods (May 22-31) and Modern British Art Part II (June 7-29). Live sales will include Jewellery (May 19), Asian Art (May 28), Modern British Art (June 10) and Mid Century Modern (June 23).

Garden rostrum

Keys in Aylsham will also re-start its sale programme after a month’s pause with live online auctions devoted to Wine, Ports and Spirits (April 29), Paintings and prints (April 30), East Anglian Art (May 12) and Antiques & Collectables (May 16).

Keys director Tim Blyth will conduct the auction from home, with the sale administered by other staff from their own homes.

“When the lockdown first started, we paused our activity while we reviewed how we could operate in a way which is completely safe for our staff and customers,” said Blyth.

“I am looking forward to taking to the ‘rostrum’ at home, hopefully in the garden if the weather is good enough.”

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'Chepstow Castle', an 8 x 10in (20 x 24cm) watercolour by John Sell Cotman (1782-1842), estimate £2000-3000 at Keys in Aylsham on May 12.

Provisions have been put in place at Keys to provide ‘contact-free’ delivery to buyers by courier, and free storage is being provided for larger purchased lots until travel restrictions are lifted.

Keys is also conducting online valuations and virtual consignments for future sales – with lots able to be consigned by post or to be collected once it has been deemed safe to relax the lockdown.

Mother of invention…

Such services moving online is, through necessity, becoming more common.

Dreweatts launched virtual valuations using applications such as FaceTime and Zoom last month and Fellows announced it would hold its first virtual valuation day on April 28 with more to follow if customers required them.

These moves, combined with the apparent success of holding auctions with no bidders in the room, are leading some auctioneers to question the old-style model.

With the announcement last week by the UK government’s chief medical adviser Chris Whitty that some form of “very socially disruptive” distancing measures would be needed for at least the rest of the year and possibly until a vaccine for Covid-19 is found, a re-evaluation of the processes needed to run a thriving auction business is now taking place.