Goodbye 2020, hello 2021 | Antiques Trade Gazette editorial


A year like no other certainly produced more than a few significant challenges for the UK’s art and antiques trade but determination and flexibility – and, of course, the internet – have been key factors in businesses surviving and some even doing very well, as the Antiques Trade Gazette team reports.


This is an abridged version of an article that was first published in Antiques Trade Gazette on 22 December 2020. For the full article click here.

It may be tempting to dismiss 2020 as the year of closures, postponements and cancellations. There was so much, in the art and antiques world and beyond, that did not happen in 2020.

However, it could just be that the 10 stop-start months since ATG carried its first coronavirus story (the cancellations of fairs in Hong Kong published in February) will be the most important in the recent history of the trade. The global health emergency has accelerated shifts in the market that most of us assumed would take years. And many will be here to stay in 2021 and beyond.

As early as March, when the world’s top fine art fair, TEFAF in Maastricht, was truncated after a positive test among the exhibitors, it quickly became clear that dealers would have to do things differently this year.

As the furlough schemes, related grants and other provisions had winners and losers, even the most old-fashioned businesses were encouraged to grasp the digital nettle. Some dealers ramped up their output of e-catalogues or launched informative social media and newsletter posts aimed at staying in touch and building their brand.

Others simply took the time to upload more stock to the website, finally completing that ‘must do when I have I time’ list.

Embracing the internet

Among the individual highlights were Philip Mould’s Art in Focus Instagram series, Les Enluminures’ Digital Delights newsletters, Richard Hoppe’s online Armchair Art Fair.

The result has been simple: dealers are now embracing the internet like never before and are increasingly selling online to buyers who had never come to their galleries to view an item.

None of this will mean the end of bricks and mortar – plenty of life is left in London’s West End, the various hot-spots around the country and antiques shops which continue to play their part in the UK’s towns and villages – but most traders agree that the pandemic has accelerated a trend that was already building gradually (and one which their trade associations had been gently prompting them for some years to gear up for).

Salerooms adapt

While Covid-19 restrictions limited the number of fairs that could be held this year, it was a different story for auctions.

In early March, live auctions, even with strong double-digit online sell-through, were still being held in a way that would be quite recognisable not just to James Christie and Samuel Baker but to the Babylonians who first employed this method of sale more than 3000 years ago.

No more. Online trading – whether live or timed auctions – has taken centre stage for the buying and selling community.

Clearer government regulations and guidance would have been helpful. But all those who embraced the ‘new normal’ were seldom disappointed. Records of all types were broken time and again and with them any of the remaining psychological barriers that persisted around the type and value of merchandise that could be dispersed without an in-person viewing.

Buying art and antiques in this way is different. However, those buyers who hitherto would purchase only offline showed they were more than willing to give it a go and it turned out that the medium already had what it needed: the very traditional value of trust and the age-old lure of good-quality, market-fresh objects offered at buyable prices.

The experiences registered across the past year by those who have taken the leap will go a long way to determining the extent to which buying behaviour has forever changed. Certainly, the auction houses conducting the sales are shifting in this direction.

Coronavirus did not, immediately at least, occasion the sort of cull among them that is now afflicting high-street retail brands.

There have been closures but no more than typical. Penrith Farmers & Kidd in Cumbria shut its fine art operation, with head of department Michael Bowman joining local rival Mitchells; Hansons acquired the assets of Holloway’s and Charles Ross Auctioneers; Special Auction Services took over Aston’s premises and Minster Auctions opened after Brightwells closed its fine art department. But, timing aside, these were the stuff of opportunity and ambition rather than Covid-19 woes.

Middle-market success

In truth, from Banksy prints to Qing ceramics, the middle-market auction has boomed. Sell-through rates were remarkably high. It is nothing short of remarkable that in a year when doors were shut for more than three months, many auction houses are close to meeting the budget they set out at the start of the year – and some will have increased their annual totals significantly.

“Our hammer total for 2020 is set to be up by more than 50% year-on-year,” says Forum Auctions chief executive Stephan Ludwig. “We see 2020 as a year of quantum change for the industry. While our own emphasis on exclusively online auctions comfortably predates the Covid-19 crisis, there is no question that the market’s shift to holding all auctions online has suited Forum’s business model well.”

The reasons are many. Lockdown prompted the focus on the home and, for some at least, the spare hours and the disposable income to make improvements. More eyeballs than ever were scrolling through catalogues on-screen and with shops and fairs closed, less was going on elsewhere.

The technology also played its part with virtual viewings via Zoom and a myriad of other platforms and lot descriptions receiving enhancements such as videos, multiple images and condition reports, all of which helped to instil confidence.

The market also moved a little closer to the dream of ‘click and collect’ antiques purchasing.

The role of the delivery firm and its staff received a boost during lockdown. The government classed logistics businesses as essential services and the reliable extra-mile efforts they frequently provided will lead to more converts.

What they may be delivering fewer of in the future are printed catalogues. While they may be one of the best calling cards an auction house has, it is one with cost to the bottom line that looks a little out of kilter with a live online-only auction. “In 2019 we spent £250,000 on printed catalogues and £40,000 on stamps,” says Leigh Osborne, owner at Chiswick Auctions. “This year we spent £20,000 and £3000.”

Auction houses are also toying with the idea of dropping regular public viewings for at least their second-string sales – many held no viewings for their auctions in November due to the prevailing restrictions and their clearance rates were unaffected. Privately some are even questioning if they really need large, prominent and welcoming premises given that the customers paying the lion’s share of the bills seldom visit.

The fundamentals of the business – the value of expertise, client trust and the ability to find buyers and sellers – will not disappear. But the UK’s auction landscape may soon begin to resemble that of the US where, for many smaller firms, ‘headquarters’ is a website address rather than a street number and a zip code.

Tougher at the top

Despite the problems inherent in sourcing goods during a lockdown, as the year progressed the phone kept ringing for regional auction houses. It became evident that key pieces of the fine art auction market were being willingly given up by the big London firms.

The changes at the top – such as de-emphasising the decorative arts market – may be among 2020’s greatest long-term impactors as the business filters down to provincial firms.

The year will not go down as a vintage one for the world’s biggest auction houses. Huge logistical adjustments were required while facing down the challenge of a temporary dwindling of blue-chip consignments.

Making direct year-on-year comparisons for performance at the big four auction houses is difficult because of all of those calendar changes, but in the first half of the year the numbers had fallen by as much as 75%.

A surge in private sales rapidly filled much of the gap, with Christie’s announcing to reporters last week that its total volume (auctions plus private sales) at the end of 2020 was down 25% year-on-year. Sotheby’s year-end numbers also showed an increase in private sales, up 50% year-on-year to $1.5bn.

Their online sales also helped, as did the live-streamed events, some conducted relay-style across different continents, that kept the high-stakes action going. This global approach will be maintained and intensified, not wound down, in the future.

All the top firms furloughed staff and not all the employees returned. It is the drip, drip, drip loss of specialists in traditional collecting areas that will make all of this very difficult for them to reverse. Details were thin on the ground but it emerged that (at Christie’s, for example) some departments would merge, some would close and others will move. Next year’s Asian Art in London festival will be without a flagship sale at King Street: the firm’s best Chinese art is moving from its decades-long home in London to Paris.

Regulation, regulation, regulation

That is just one of many possible or definite regulatory changes affecting the market in 2021 and beyond. For firms operating in the art and antiques sector there can scarcely have been a more important time to be a member of a trade association.

Covid-19 may have taken other challenges off the front page but they remain very much on the agenda. Whether or not the European Union and the UK ever manage to agree a trade deal, moving goods between the two jurisdictions will be more difficult, with new paperwork and inevitable delays.

For example, items containing the parts of endangered species (notably rosewood and antique ivory) will require export permits when moved overseas from January 1.

Fortunately, the shipping trade has been preparing for Brexit on a ‘worst-case scenario’ basis. It is confident that, with contingencies in place, the system will find a way to operate.

Brexit will not be the only issue to deal with. The 5th Anti-Money Laundering Directive (known as 5AMLD) requires auction houses, art galleries and dealerships to conduct stricter due diligence on buyers who purchase ‘works of art’ above a threshold of €10,000.

So-called Art Market Participants (AMPs who sell paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures, tapestries, signed photographs and ceramics) need to register and a pay a fee with HMRC by June 10, 2021. Those outside the definition (selling only furniture, unsigned ceramics, jewellery and collectors’ items such as coins, medals and stamps) do not have to register. But existing laws still require due diligence for all transactions.

In the meantime, a successful vaccine roll-out and a reliable internet connection will be on everyone’s wish-list for 2021.

The full version of this article was first published in Antiques Trade Gazette on 22 December 2020.