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Bidding at Sotheby’s Old Master sale in London in December 2020 took place on the phone, in the room and online.

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Sotheby’s reported turnover for the year at $5bn (£3.6bn), a 4% rise on 2019 – when total sales were $4.8bn (£3.5bn). In contrast, Christie’s reported a fall of 25% in its total sales on the previous year, to £3.4bn ($4.4bn) in 2020.

Charles F Stewart, Sotheby’s CEO, said: “In a matter of months, our worldwide team united to implement a sweeping set of transformative changes to our business, many of which will continue long after the pandemic is behind us. Following these innovations, we ended the year as market leaders.” It is the first time since 2011 (when the totals were $5.8bn and $5.7bn) that Sotheby’s has finished ahead of Christie’s.

Sotheby’s said it experienced a record year for private sales, totalling more than $1.5bn (£1.1bn), a 50% increase on 2019.

Christie’s reported close to £1bn of private sales in 2020 (up 57% on the previous year), with three individual sales above $100m.

Private sale certainty

Guillaume Cerutti, chief executive officer at Christie’s, said: “We have seen a rare phenomenon of high-end private sales. The uncertainty and the environment has led clients to choose private sale over auctions in some instances.”

Sotheby’s reported it had held more than 400 timed online auctions, which it said produced sales that were an “all-time industry high of more than $570m (£420m), over three times the volume and over seven times the value for 2019”.

Average lot value in Sotheby’s timed online sales had more than doubled from under $10,000 to over $20,000 and 70% of its auctions were held online in 2020 (up from 30% in 2019). Sotheby’s said improvements in its web and mobile applications meant 80% of bids received across all types of auctions were placed online.

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Sotheby’s said online biding and buying would continue to grow. Among the highest-value bids placed through Sotheby’s app was an underbid of almost £4m for this Rembrandt self-portrait from 1632 that eventually sold for £12.6m at Sotheby’s live-streamed cross-category evening sale in London on July 28, 2020. With buyer’s premium added, the price was £14.6m.

At Christie’s, online-only sales jumped 262% in 2020 to £243m, with more than 200 timed sales during the year.

Cerutti believes the shift to online auctions is permanent; the coronavirus pandemic accelerated the pace of a change already well under way. He predicts half of Christie’s auctions will be timed online next year with fewer live auctions than before.

However, he stressed that live auctions “are the essence” of what Christie’s does and they will return. “The future will be omnichannel,” he said.

Both auction houses highl ighted Asia as a continuing source of growth, with Sotheby’s Asian clients accounting for over 30% of its worldwide auction sales. For Christie’s, 34% of global spend in auction sales came from buyers in Asia.

Despite consignor reticence in 2020, both auction houses predict the mood will change in 2021.

Cerutti added: “The appetite for objects and works of art is very strong across the world. On the supply side we believe it will be a much better year. Delayed decisions to sell are expected and some important estates are coming up in the US. We have a strong pipeline for next year and we are reasonably confident.”