Preliminary Auction House Results for 2020 Show Industry’s Resilience

James Ardis
Published on
Christie’s “relay” auction, held on July 10th, 2020, simultaneously in Hong Kong, Paris, London, and New York. Photo from Christie’s.
Christie’s “relay” auction, held on July 10th, 2020, simultaneously in Hong Kong, Paris, London, and New York. Photo from Christie’s.

Auction houses spent much of 2020 adapting to global lockdowns, like most industries. There were concerns in the spring about the dramatic shift towards online bidding and the prospect of dwindling consignments. But preliminary auction house results for the year show that the demand for fine and decorative art remained strong. As the major auction houses moved their events online, they were largely met by enthusiastic bidders. 

Reports from Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and other major auction houses at the end of the calendar year point to the health of the industry and several broad trends. In general, the shift online led to more millennial collectors entering the art market. Many auction houses also saw continued growth in Asia and other previously underrepresented regions. And where auction revenue fell short, an increase in private sales often lightened the blow. 

From Sotheby’s to Artcurial, Auction Daily takes a closer look at preliminary auction house results for 2020.

Sotheby’s

Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Auction on June 29th, 2020. Photo from Sotheby’s.
Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Auction on June 29th, 2020. Photo from Sotheby’s.

According to Sotheby’s end-of-year report, total sales dropped from USD 5.8 billion in 2019 to $5 billion in 2020, a decrease of 16%. Encouraging signs for Sotheby’s included a 50% increase in private sales ($1.5 billion), which set a record for all auction houses. This made it easier for Sotheby’s to absorb the $1.3 billion decrease in auction sales and $800 million drop in total sales for 2020. 

Thanks in large part to its pivot online, Sotheby’s welcomed twice as many bidders under the age of 40 as the year prior. The auction house also noted growing confidence among collectors in online-only viewing rooms. Numerous clients placed $1 million+ bids with Sotheby’s after only seeing the lot online. One such buyer placed a $73.1 million bid for a Francis Bacon triptych, the highest-recorded online bid in auction history. 

Another positive sign for Sotheby’s was the growth of their presence in Asia. Buyers on the continent purchased nine of the auction house’s 20 most expensive lots. In total, over 30% of Sotheby’s auction sales in 2020 came from Asia.

Triptych Inspired By The Oresteia of Aeschylus by Francis Bacon. Photo from Sotheby’s.
Triptych Inspired By The Oresteia of Aeschylus by Francis Bacon. Photo from Sotheby’s.

Christie’s

Christie’s recorded $4.4 billion in total sales for 2020, according to their preliminary report. That is lower than Sotheby’s and also down 25% from Christie’s sales a year prior.

Despite the more substantial drop-off, Christie’s had many of the same reasons to be thankful in 2020 as Sotheby’s. Christie’s saw a 57% increase in its private sales, ending the calendar year with a total of $1.3 billion. Art Market Monitor notes that the auction house sold at least three pieces for more than $100 million each in such deals.

Like Sotheby’s, Christie’s benefitted from growing sales in Asia and a wave of new millennial buyers. “Global demand for art and objects remains strong with an impressive influx of new clients, especially millennials,” says Chief Executive Officer of Christie’s, Guillaume Cerutti. Preliminary auction house results show that 32% of Christie’s new online bidders were millennials. Meanwhile, 34% of its auction sales for 2020 were from clients in Asia.

Freeman’s

Tiffany Studios’ Angels Representing Seven Churches. Photo from Freeman’s.
Tiffany Studios’ Angels Representing Seven Churches. Photo from Freeman’s.

The Philadelphia-based auction house has yet to release an overview of its 2020 sales. However, in an end-of-year statement from its chairman, Alasdair Nichol, Freeman’s pointed to a string of successful events as emblematic of its resilience. That includes the sale of six Tiffany Studios church windows, which nearly tripled their high estimate to cross the auction block for $705,000 in November. 

Freeman’s wrapped up the year with its American Art & Pennsylvania Impressionists sale on December 6th. The auction achieved $5.2 million, which earned it the distinction of Freeman’s highest-selling fine art event since 2004.

Artcurial 

Meanwhile, in Paris, Artcurial reported a drop-off of 19% compared to 2019, with total sales at $180.5 million for 2020. The auction house fended off larger losses in a tumultuous year thanks to a 59% increase in online sales. 

Like Christie’s and Sotheby’s, Artcurial is looking to bolster its earnings with international events. The auction house held its first sale in Marrakesh, Morocco, on December 30th, 2020, and recently launched a contemporary African art department. Highlights from the Marrakesh auction included several works by Société des Peintres Orientalistes artist Nasreddine Dinet.

L'école coranique by Nasreddine Dinet. Photo from Artcurial.
L’école coranique by Nasreddine Dinet. Photo from Artcurial.

Auction Daily will continue to cover preliminary auction house results for 2020 as they are made available.