Going Once, Going Twice…
March 2020 changed everything for South African businesses as companies moved from a central office to the homes of their workers and tried to continue to operate as smoothly as possible. South Africa’s modern and contemporary art auction houses were no exception, and luckily, they were no stranger to conducting some of their business online.
Mary Corrigall of Corrigall & Co. Art Consultancy points out that although auction houses were reluctant to sell high-end artworks online before lockdown occurred, they are now successfully running all auctions online. Strauss & Co., for instance, recently sold online a 1953 Pierneef oil painting of a bushveld scene with its iconic trees for R10.2-million and a 1946 Stern forest scene for R8.5 million in a live virtual auction. We can also see high quality works coming to auction, for example the rare South African legacy painting, In the beer hall by Gerard Sekoto, which has been deemed too significant to leave the country by the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA) and will go on sale at Aspire Art Auctions’ September auction.
Strauss & Co. and Aspire already had their own successful online platforms in place before lockdown, while Stephan Welz & Co. had been selling art online through various platforms since 2018, making the transition for these firms smoother than it might have been otherwise.
For second-tier auction houses like Russell Kaplan who have only recently moved online, Corrigall believes they should always have offered online auctions – “particularly as they sell lower-priced items on monthly sales, so for that auction house, this online shift is fundamental to the development of
Jacqui Carney of Aspire remarks on their online agility, present since the inception of their business and says, “While we may miss the excitement of the live auction environment, digital technologies can present art in compelling virtual formats.” “While we may miss the excitement of the live auction environment, digital technologies can present art in compelling virtual formats”.
Luke Crossley of Stephan Welz & Co. says that the online bidding process has increased the appeal for many collectors and broadened their international audience for bidding. Strauss & Co. have had almost 40 successful “online only” auctions since 2013, and have fast-tracked their digital transformation which
had already started in 2019.
Executive director at Strauss & Co., Susie Goodman praises the fantastic accessibility that online auctions offer by “bringing the auctioneer into your home”.
Corrigall notes that the online auction platforms provide accessibility to a larger audience and possibly new, younger buyers. She notes, however, that the high estimates for artworks are not being achieved, from which one may draw the conclusion that although people are buying, they are being conservative with their spend.
There have also been a number of innovative ventures from auction houses in their attempts to continue their busy education programmes and charity work. Aspire was integral to the Lockdown Collection auction which raised money for artists, and ran four other charity auctions too, for a variety of causes, with successful webinars accompanying the auctions. Carney also highlights Aspire’s new business section through which clients can engage in private sales of artworks.
The sale of art can be a bit of a dry process, however, without the possibility of viewing the objects in person. Aspire says that they are working on compelling virtual exhibition spaces that will be available to clients before the end of the year. Strauss & Co., meanwhile, have been very active online, partnering with museums and other collections to broadcast their exhibitions over Zoom.
Their 4pm weekday lectures are drawing a larger audience than usual with 8 000 participants so far.
According to Goodman, “One of the very tangible delights has been learning more about the creative economy we’re part of.”
For any business, one particularly helpful advantage to moving online during this difficult time has been the cost-effective nature of digital. Aspire plans to maintain their digital presence in the future, slowly re-introducing the physical realm as the world opens up, but things will never be the same for the business again.