It means that auction houses and art and antiques dealers in England will be able to open to the public from June as long as government guidelines are met.
New guidelines currently being drawn up will detail how art market businesses can become ‘Covid-19-secure’. This may involve using masks, limiting the numbers in a venue and operating by appointment.
Anthony Browne, chairman at BAMF, said: “Our main aim in recent weeks was to ensure DCMS put art market businesses in the first phase of non-essential businesses to reopen. This has been achieved and is the direct outcome of our lobbying. Sector guidelines are currently being drafted but will not delay the reopening of business in June.”
SOFAA chairman Helen Carless, of Lawrences of Crewkerne, thanked BAMF and added: “It should not be underestimated what has been achieved. Up to this point the art market was very much viewed as a leisure industry and as such would have been unlikely to open before July.”
A DCMS spokesperson confirmed to ATG that it is the intention to “open non-essential retail in phases from June 1, when and where it is safe to do so and subject to them being able to follow Covid-19 secure guidelines. This includes commercial art galleries and auction houses”. It is likely that “non-essential retail” will include antiques centres.
The government also stated in a 50-page document published on May 11 that some outdoor businesses, which could include art and antiques fairs and markets, may be able to reopen in July ahead of some indoor public spaces such as cinemas. However, there has not yet been any further clarification on this measure. The reopening plan applies to England only at this stage and is conditional on declining rates of infection.
A way forward
The latest government guidance seeks to sketch out a way forward for businesses while the health threat continues.
Between now and the beginning of June, auction houses and galleries can operate behind closed doors. An updated document released by government on May 1 stated that these “businesses and venues must remain closed to members of the public… However, staff may be present to make deliveries or provide services in response to orders [by] telephone, online, or mail.”
Guy Schooling, chairman at Essex auction house Sworders, said the firm will now conduct probate valuations in vacant properties (that have been empty for at least 72 hours), will accept consignments via courier, and staff will soon restart conducting house visits. He expects dealers to offer more stock via auction houses in the absence of fairs initially.
Schooling added: “We are redesigning our saleroom to avoid bottlenecks and will follow the relevant precautions. The next step will be viewings by appointment. Room bidding will depend on government advice and acceptance by our staff that it can be done safely. We will be getting back to near normal but it is of course not actual normality.”
Lots Road Auctions in London held its first online-only live auction last week (May 17). It is now working on how to reopen to the public safely. Senior auctioneer Nick Carter said: “It will be a measured and steady return back to business. We are expecting the volumes of consignments to be lower so we expect to hold just fortnightly auctions for now.”
Among the latest auction houses to announce new sales calendars are Roseberys (June 4), The Canterbury Auction Galleries (June 6-7), Cheffins (June 11) and Woolley & Wallis, with its first sale commencing on June 17.
W&W’s staff will return to work on a “gradual, staggered basis from June 1, and viewing of auctions will take place by appointment”, said chairman John Axford. “Everything is being done to ensure that we can hold auctions in as normal a fashion as possible, during a time which is very far from normal… I’m confident from talking to dealers and private collectors that the market is still buoyant and the cancellation of various fairs has only strengthened demand for good-quality art and antiques.”
Sotheby’s and Christie’s have been staging a wide range of onl ine -only auct ions throughout April and May but both now appear to be gearing up to reinstate live sales. Details of when and how they will work are yet to be announced.
Sotheby’s flagship sales of Impressionist & Modern art in London are due to take place in the week beginning June 22.
Sotheby’s flagship sales of Impressionist & Modern art in London are due to take place in the week beginning June 22. In a statement to ATG the company said: “We will be holding sales throughout June and July in London, and are working closely with BAMF to ensure our policies align closely with government directives.”
Christie’s had moved its equivalent sales to New York but announced last week that these would be replaced by a new-format 20th century art sale on July 10 which will take place in ‘relay’ form across four locations (New York, London, Paris and Hong Kong).
Each city will host a pre-sale public exhibition “staged in line with the appropriate regional health advice at the time, complemented by a ground-breaking virtual exhibition”.
Bidders will be able to participate online and, where local government advice allows, with clients and phone bidders welcomed in each saleroom.
Christie’s had already moved its ‘Classic Week’ of sales in New York online.
The UK government also announced last week that its employee furlough scheme adopted by many auctioneers and dealers would be extended until October. It will continue to pay wages of workers during the coronavirus pandemic.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak said the 80% of salary that workers receive (up to £2500 a month) will be maintained but that employers would be asked to contribute. Sunak also said that employers can bring employees currently furloughed back to work part-time under the scheme from August. Full details will be released by the end of May.
The devolved nations within the UK are taking somewhat different approaches to the Covid-19. The lockdown for auctioneers and dealers remained in place in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland as ATG went to press.
In Scotland, Lyon & Turnbull said it is continuing to follow the advice from the Scottish government as per other businesses and residents under its jurisdiction.
However, it will continue “to conduct our successful ‘live online’ auctions in the meantime as well as offer virtual valuations and contactless pickup service for clients wishing to sell in future sales, free for items over £1000”.
Its London gallery and England-wide valuations service is set to resume activities from June 1, following the official advice.
In Ireland, James O’Halloran, managing director at Adam’s in Dublin, said: “The recent Irish government guidelines on reopening the country have provided us with a roadmap but not, as yet, a definitive timetable as to when we might restart auctions. The roadmap suggests Ireland returning to a more normal environment toward the end of July. Adam’s plans to start holding the first of our sales then.
“When auctions do restart they will be different, but access will not be so different that they will be unfamiliar or off-putting. Our offices will return to being manned in a responsible manner from early June. We hope to be able to start taking physical consignments from June 8, if the timelines remain unchanged.”