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A Cartier Tutti Frutti bracelet from c.1930 was pursued by five bidders against a $600,000-800,000 estimate at a Sotheby’s single-lot online timed auction that closed on April 28. It sold at $1m hammer, the highest price for any jewel sold in an online sale as well as the highest price for any jewel sold at auction in 2020.

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While both firms have been forced to put some sales on hold and at least 200 members of staff at each have been furloughed worldwide according to reports, the future of the flagship art and antiques auctions scheduled for June and July is likely to determine to what extent the overall turnover of the big two auction firms will be affected.

Currently, Sotheby’s sales of Impressionist & Modern and Contemporary art in London in June are still scheduled to take place, while Christie’s have moved theirs to New York where they are being consolidated into a single week of 20th-century auctions. Christie’s ‘Classic Week’ of sales in New York in April is now scheduled for the week of June 8, while the July Old Master series of auctions in London remains on the calendar at both houses.

Online bounce

The increased amount of online activity, however, has given some relief in dealing with the worst effects of the lockdowns across the world.

Sotheby’s staged 16 online sales from March 15-April 15, six of which were originally planned as live events but converted to a digital format. The total of $31m was four times higher than the online sales for the same period last year.

The average price per lot was $29,000 including premium, which compared to $8900 in 2019.

Selling rates in categories with already high levels of online bidding were particularly strong – for instance, the online jewellery auction March 25 had a record 97% sell-through rate – but auctions of Banksy Prints (March 26) and Old Masters (April 8) also ran at over 95%. Sotheby’s posted the highest-ever total anywhere for an online sale of 20th century design on March 31.

Online sales have also helped to gain new bidders during the lockdown, perhaps due to people having more time to study online catalogues or believing they may have a chance to secure a bargain during this period. Sotheby’s reported that for these online sales from March 15-April 15, an extraordinary 50% of bidders were entirely new to Sotheby’s.

Many of these bidders are younger people. For example, 50% of buyers in its weekly Watches sale on April 8 were under 40.

New timed sales

Christie’s, meanwhile, has also been ramping up its online offerings across collecting categories including decorative arts, fine art, jewellery, watches wine and handbags.

It has started rolling out a new batch of timed online sales with bidding opening on a weekly basis and running for between 14 and 21 days.

President of Christie’s EMEA Dirk Boll said: “Alongside the existing calendar of sales, we have more than tripled our schedule of online-only sales globally for April and May.”

The Jewels Online timed auction from April 13-24 totalled $1.35m with 99% sold by lot and 38.5% new buyers. The auction house also reported a 99% increase of unique visitors compared to the online jewels sale hosted in April 2019 and a 46% increase of unique visitors compared to the February 2020 sale.

The top lot was an emerald and diamond ‘Icon’ necklace by Graff that sold for $42,000, against a low estimate of $10,000.