There is never a bad time to buy art – or sell it – even if the economy is floundering and even when there is a pandemic.
The long-held view that the art market remains steady in the rockiest of times has been borne out with the COVID-19 forced lockdown speeding up the shift to online sales and several auction houses reporting that business is as good if not better than earlier with more high value art being sold.
Leading global as well as Indian auction houses told PTI that the number of online auctions held in 2020 have gone up, indicating the increased popularity of bidding over the internet while keeping the significance of physical auctions unchanged.
According to London-headquartered Christie’s, the interest in important and unique works of art has historically never been a casualty in times of economic crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic that led to a slowdown across the world has been no different.
“Collectors remain active even at the most unusual times as they are constantly seeking rare works,” Christie’s India Managing Director Sonal Singh said. The auction house held 115 auctions till August 20 this year. Of these, 100 were online and open to bidders across the world.
“The sell through rates are above 80 per cent,” Singh told PTI.
The process of buying art has conventionally been an experiential one with collectors preferring to interact with a piece of art before investing up to lakhs of rupees for it. But they have quickly adapted as several auction houses across the globe branched out to sell art online, a process hastened by the COVID-19 pandemic that forced millions of people into their homes.
Art collector and curator Arjun Sawhney, for instance, is all for selling and purchasing art on the internet.
“Online auctions had already become effective and successful pre-pandemic. The pandemic, in fact, has accelerated the process of selling art through the net and that is a positive. For me both online and offline auctions work fine. Online makes it easier to view the art and participate without geographical limitations. Plus, if you are selling, the size of your audience increases exponentially in an online auction,” the Delhi-based Sawhney told PTI.
Catering to collectors like Sawhney, Christie’s has sped up its “digital first” strategy over the last six months. “We have accelerated innovation and changed internal approaches, putting digital first – the new strategy we had planned to roll out over the next three years has been sped up this year. We have adapted to the way we market and sell – digital marketing enhancements, personalised content, online viewing, and livestreamed auctions/online-only sales/ private sales,” Singh said.
Sale patterns have been similar for the New York-headquartered Sotheby’s, which held 255 online auctions till October 5, more than three times the 88 auctions in the same period last year. It also doubled the average value of items sold in online sales from under USD 10,000 to over USD 20,000.
“We sped up our business when the world was slowing down. Live sales are still an important part of our future, but the online format has worked very well in recent months. Our expectation is that we could see many of our live auctions move seamlessly to an online format and a growing proportion of online sales in the future,” a Sotheby’s spokesperson added.
While the economic slump has indeed resulted in reducing disposable incomes of buyers, art market intelligence and asset advisory firm Artery India said the Indian art market “recorded a strong level of trade” in the last six months despite a drop in overall spends compared to last year.
“There has been a strong level of market activity, with several records having been established this year. Prices of artworks from the Modern and pre-Modern section have achieved all-time highs over the past six months,” said CEO Artery India, Arvind Vijaymohan,.
From January to August 2020, the turnover of the Indian art market was `301.4 crore compared to `442.4 crore in 2019. This was achieved from the sale of 1,131 works, up from 1,503 works in 2019. Of these, 57 works sold for above `1 crore. In 2019, 77 artworks sold for more than `1 crore.
A total of 316 artists’ works (compared to 410 in 2019) were featured with new global price records for 77 (60 artists in 2019) amongst them.
Vijaymohan explained that though the turnover was higher in 2019, it was “derived from a comparatively greater number of works, with nearly over additional 100 artists”.
“The fact that the number of records broken in 2020 exceeded that of the previous year, and the turnover has retained its strength – while the economy is in a slump – is an indication of the confidence it (art market) now commands with an informed section of patrons and investors,” he said.
He added that online auctions have played a key role in facilitating trade during this time.
Between March this year, when the nationwide lockdown came into effect, to July 2020, 866 works were sold online, realising `150.1 crore. The top artist in the online auction segment was S H Raza with 21 works sold for `5.5 crore.
“As of now there is no evidence of buying trends in the Indian auction market being adversely affected. On the contrary, newer records have been made for artists,” said Indrajit Chatterjee of home-grown auction house Prinseps.
“Movement to the online platform is inevitable in today’s world especially if you wish to target non-local vendors and buyers. The pandemic has nudged, or rather expedited, the shift which was imminent. There is tremendous opportunity here,” he said.
Collectors are clearly embracing the shift to online auctions, making the process of acquiring art more democratic. In fact, the shift has attracted younger buyers as well. Sotheby’s sale records show that the auction house has brought on a massive proportion of young buyers in the last six months. “Online sales offer us access to an untapped market. One interesting, and perhaps unexpected, upside of the COVID-19 period is that the proportion of younger buyers and new buyers we have been able to reach. Over a third of buyers in our online sales are new to us (39 per cent year to date-YTD), and over a quarter of all online buyers in recent months were under 40 years old,” the spokesperson said. For Christie’s, the number of new buyers from online sales has gone up by 66 per cent YTD, and first time online buyers are up by an overwhelming 193 per cent YoY (year on year). Twenty per cent of the collector base had not bought with Christie’s in past two years have re-engaged in the online channel since lockdown.