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Online auctions fail to compensate for loss of saleroom events in 2020

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Public relations from the leading auction houses is highly sophisticated and somewhat selective with the facts because there is always enough good news at a sale to crowd out the bad.

Swiss-based data analyst Mercury Project is taking a more arithmetical approach to the market and discovered that, last year at least, the pandemic took a greater toll that press releases would suggest.

The big five houses, Antiquorum, Bonhams, Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips, ended 2020 with revenue of CHF 316 million (including fees), down 19% from 2019, despite three times more sales taking place because of the rush to online auctions.

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Across the five auctioneers, there were 189 sales last year, up from 66 in the pre-pandemic world of 2019.

Sotheby’s, alone, organised 129 online auction events, which contributed to online sales rising by 260% in 2020 across the top five auctioneers.

However, this accounted for only 26% of total auction sales and did not offset the drop from live auctions, where sales dropped by 32%.

All live auctions accept bids from the saleroom floor, phone banks and through online bids, so the total for live sales does include all bids.

There were 9,392 watches sold through auction in 2020, down 10% on the prior year, and the average price paid for each watch was CHF 33,600, down 10% from 2019.

The spring sales were worst affected as the first wave of covid crashed across the world, with sales down by 59% in the second quarter.

Autumn sales bounced back, but fourth quarter revenue was still down by 19%.

According to Mercury Project’s research, Phillips overtook Christie’s in sales of timepieces to become the new market leader.

Phillips sales increased 11% in 2020 compared to a 43% decline for Christie’s.

The average price paid for each watch sold by Phillips was CHF 105,000, up from CHF 88,601 while at Christie’s, the average price fell from CHF 51,604 to CHF 39,672.

It is worth noting that Christie’s figures for 2019 were impacted by the company hosting the Only Watch charity auction, which included the world record breaking sale of Patek Philippe’s Grandmaster Chime Ref. 6300A-010 for CHF 31.0 million.

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