How the Heck Did Auction Houses Just Sell Almost a Billion Dollars in Art During a Global Pandemic?


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Each May, as the flowers bloom and the evening light lingers, the world's largest auction houses hold their marquee spring sales in New York, enabling perennial market leader Christie's, its arch-rival Sotheby's, and insurgent Phillips to collectively bring in well over $1 billion in one so-called "gigaweek." But this spring, the COVID-19 shutdown left the Big Three's salesrooms unnaturally quiet in the Empire City and around the world. Starved of vital cyclical revenue, Sotheby's cut hundreds of jobs, while Christie's both restructured and downsized—with all of these moves indicating that blockbuster replacements for the major sales be staged as soon as possible, in whatever form they must take.

Cue the screens. In late June and early July, the major auction houses made an unprecedented pivot from IRL to URL with uncharacteristic speed. Auction paddles were replaced with mouse clicks, and some international offices stayed open as late as 4 a.m. to help stage transcontinental, hours-long hybrid sales.

As usual, the duopoly of Sotheby's and Christie's provided the overwhelming majority of the action. At Sotheby's, a three-part sale saw auctioneer Oliver Barker seamlessly manage a futuristic bank of monitors ping-ponging in bids from cities around the globe, and the star lot—a triptych by Francis Bacon—brought in a staggering $84 million en route to $300 million in total sales. But Christie's—not usually known for its technological prowess—got the final word with the "ONE" sale, a four-city, four-hour "relay" auction that set a slew of artist records while racking up $421 million overall.

How did the houses manage to pull off these unexpected wins in perhaps the most challenging market in our lifetime? On this week's episode, Andrew Goldstein is joined by Eileen Kinsella and Nate Freeman, Artnet News's esteemed auction-reporting veterans, to discuss the lead-up to the history-making summer season, the blow-by-blow at Christie's "ONE" sale, and what it all means for the future of auctions.

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