How Has COVID-19 Impacted the Auction Industry?

James Ardis
Published on
Sotheby’s event in Hong Kong in April 2018. Photo by Isaac Lawrence/AFP/Getty Images.

Sotheby’s Modern Art Evening Sale was set to bring pieces with US $10 million+ estimates to the auction block in Hong Kong this April. Instead, the sale is moving to New York due to COVID-19. Sotheby’s is far from alone. Countless auction houses throughout the industry moved, rescheduled, or canceled similar events due to growing concerns. With no clear end in sight, many wonder what impact COVID-19 will have on the industry in 2020 and beyond.

The World Health Organization has declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Businesses around the world look to protect their employees and avoid holding public events that could spread the virus. Auction houses like Sotheby’s have canceled major events and adjusted to the best of their abilities. The auction house moved its Modern Art Evening Sale to New York. But they still want to encourage online bidders throughout Asia. That’s why Sotheby’s plans to schedule the New York event at a time that will still work well for Asian bidders online and on the phone, CEO of Sotheby’s Asia, Kevin Ching, promised in a statement to Artnet.

It is unclear how much money the move from Hong Kong to New York cost Sotheby’s. However, similar moves and cancellations give us a better look at how much money is on the line for a flagship event. Last month, Art Basel canceled its upcoming Hong Kong fair. Artnet reported that Art Basel promised to absorb costs as part of the cancellation. “Art Basel’s organizers will reimburse galleries for 75 percent of their stand fee and will not ask to be paid for special orders for walls or lighting placed in advance with the fair,” wrote Eileen Kinsella for Artnet. The decision to cancel the event was not an easy one for Art Basel. Their annual Hong Kong fair is one of only three international events the organization runs each year. “We are acutely aware of the important role that the fair plays within the region’s cultural scene,” said Art Basel’s global director, Marc Spiegler, in the same Artnet article.

A KAWS installation in Harbour City, Hong Kong. Photo by Perrotin.

But as COVID-19 spreads, the ramifications extend far beyond Asia. Hundreds of people have died from the virus in Italy, and the public health crisis stopped gatherings across the country, just as one example. In the art world, the Louvre closed for three days due to fear that the major tourist destination was not prepared for a virus outbreak. The museum reopened last week, but reports indicate new measures are still restricting visitor access. One guard for the museum told the New York Times that they believe new procedures at the Louvre still did not go far enough.

While some auction houses canceled or moved their events, others have chosen to reschedule. Christie’s, for example, postponed their 20th Century and Contemporary Art Evening event in Hong Kong to May. But it is unclear if things will return to normal in time for Christie’s rescheduled auction. Christie’s can also postpone the event again or outright cancel it. But what impact will that have on the auction house and collectors scheduled to sell their pieces as part of the Contemporary Art Evening?
Last week, the number of COVID-19 cases surpassed 100,000. At that time, the World Health Organization reminded communities that the spread could be reversed. “Every person has the capacity to contribute, to protect themselves, to protect others, whether in the home, the community, the healthcare system, the workplace or the transport system.” By canceling, rescheduling, or relocating events, auction houses around the world hope to be part of that reversal process. Auction Daily will continue covering COVID-19 as its ramifications on the auction industry become more clear.