In these early months of 2020, lockdown has plunged half the world’s population and its economy into an involuntary state of torpor. After a first cluster in Wuhan, epicentre of the outbreak in China, cities across the globe were hit by the virus. So it was that, without warning, the curtain came down on the theatre of the traditional live auction. A recently published survey by Art News states that auction sales in the art market have declined by nearly 76% across all categories. This historic situation has hastened, not to say forced, the transition to digital – successfully so if the excellent results of Sotheby’s Watches Weekly sessions, launched end March, are anything to go by.
From the very first session the storied British auction house played it well, with close to 90% of the fifty-some lots selling. Despite a certain scepticism, the market has proved resilient with prices remaining buoyant and in line with current trends. The Rolex Daytona, a barometer for the market, has in certain instances even outperformed. As always in times of crisis, buyers seek the reassurance of blue-chip names, with Patek Philippe and Rolex leading the field. While demand for classic grand complication watches by Haute Horlogerie brands has tapered off, interest in Patek Philippe is stronger than ever. This was corroborated by the results of Sotheby’s first April sale, with the Nautilus as always a particularly prized model.
Safe havens still seduce
Collectors’ enthusiasm for these online auctions was no flash in the pan, as successive sales have shown. Rolex, the second saleroom star alongside Patek, has more than confirmed its popularity. All its main models have held their value with some particularly sought-after variations outperforming. A case in point, a Rolex Daytona with green chrysoprase dial doubled its pre-sale estimate at Sotheby’s Watches Weekly session on May 13. The collector’s watch market stays strong, although questions arise as to how it will continue to operate in light of the current crisis.
Judging by the results achieved by Sotheby’s Watches Weekly sales since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, buyers will continue to seek out the same reassuring names, probably with some surprises in store at the Geneva sales. These have been pushed to end June and will undoubtedly generate a high level of interest among observers who are curious to know what the latest trends and prices on the collector’s watch market are. Hong Kong is scheduled to follow in July, then Monaco.
Another positive point, auction houses are lining up some landmark collections. These include a selection of historic Breguet at Sotheby’s New York, watches from the private collection of Jean-Claude Biver at Phillips Geneva, and an important collection of Patek Philippe at Christie’s Hong Kong. Not forgetting the summer sessions in Monaco, led by Artcurial whose week of luxury sales will also feature classic cars. Fingers crossed that there will be no second lockdown due to Covid-19.
The magic of the saleroom
There are lessons to be learned from every crisis, and the recent rush of online sales raises questions as to the future of the traditional in-person auction. Both Christie’s and Sotheby’s say they have gained close to 40% new bidders at their recent online sales, suggesting adjustments for this hard-hit 2020 season. What can we expect from sales that must comply with health regulations? No doubt the coming months won’t be easy and auction houses will have to put new strategies in place. Already, though, it appears clear that the Covid-19 crisis will have both economic and structural consequences as digital enters the auction world. Let us hope the right balance is achieved between online and physical.
There are many advantages to be had from digital, as we have all seen for ourselves these past weeks. However, personal contact is at the heart of this business and nothing can replace that. While every auction house now operates an online platform, a live auction offers an experience that cannot and should not be underestimated. The same is true of the opportunity to view and handle the item itself. A live auction is a spectacle in its own right where the auctioneer’s talent can make all the difference. It is also a spectacle worth defending, particularly as the number of items crossing the block diminishes: barely 5% of a global pre-owned watch market that is already dominated by online giants such as Chrono24.
Let us be reasonable and hold on to the magic of a live auction. Without the drama and excitement of this “human comedy”, the horological treasures we love will take on a bitter taste. Digital must remain a means, not an end. Yes, sales will have to comply with strict health requirements such as face masks, but we can live with that. Let’s aim to come out of lockdown on top and provide reassurance before returning to the saleroom. No-one knows what the future holds but we can be certain the flame of watch auctions will continue to burn bright in all the art market capitals of the world and beyond!