Auctions Are Crimped as the Pandemic Forces Them Online

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Just about every area of personal finance has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic. That economic shock reaches all the way to some of the most aspirational purchases on the planet: art, cars, watches and wine.

The mechanism to buy and sell many of these objects — frothy, in-person auctions, with attendees dressed smartly and cocktails readily available — has been rendered untenable since March because of social-distancing measures meant to stop the spread of the virus.

But the desire remains, with sellers looking to shed valuable items to shore up their own balance sheets, and buyers who have reserves looking to collect on the cheap.

To meet that demand, the rarefied world of the auction house has been forced online.

The electricity you feel in a room, as the bidding heats up and prices soar, is gone. But auction houses are working to make sure selling their high-ticket objects doesn’t devolve into an eBay frenzy, where wealthy buyers are sitting around in their pajamas stalking deals on their laptops.

To counteract that down-market feel, auction houses have become creative. Sotheby’s, for one, built a platform for its online-only auctions that prevents people from entering a bid just as the time is about to expire, a strategy known as sniping.

“If someone snipes at the last minute, the sale extends for another five minutes,” said Richard Lopez, head of online sales and a senior watch specialist at Sotheby’s.

Auctions tend to be seasonal, and many are smaller now that they are online. Several annual California car auctions next month in Pebble Beach and Monterrey are planning to present half the number of cars online that they did in in-person auctions last year. But because sellers may need cash, there may also be more deals for people with money to invest in these illiquid assets.

Bidding and buying will require greater due diligence ahead of the auction, because items will be difficult to see, feel and assess.

“The pandemic has caused people who under normal circumstances have shied away from the internet to increase their interest in buying online,” said David Sleeman, executive director of the Winston Art Group, an appraisal firm. But that means those new online buyers need “to research the sellers’ reputation and feel a level of trust that they’re going to be on the up and up.”

Sotheby’s contemporary art sale, held online at the end of June, was the first big test of virtual auctions. In-person viewing was limited by New York’s reopening guidelines.

Some major pieces of art still sold for top dollar. A Francis Bacon triptych sold for nearly $85 million, above its estimate. A Jean-Michel Basquiat drawing went for $15 million, which was $3 million more than the high estimate.

But some of the other featured paintings, including one by Roy Lichtenstein and another by Clyfford Still, fetched prices in the middle of their ranges.

“We’ve been lucky at Sotheby’s because with our online platform, we’ve been able to switch over with the same level of trust,” Mr. Lopez said. (When asked what was lost online, he responded without hesitation: “The fun.”)

Still, the push to move auctions online has its risks. Stories abound of buyers being duped by high-end galleries.

“Acquiring real estate, a business — there would be a lot of due diligence,” Mr. Sleeman said. “But oftentimes when a collector is considering making a purchase of an equally expensive painting, they don’t do the same due diligence.”

On the positive side, moving big purchases online could drive greater advance research, Mr. Sleeman said. Some art fairs are requiring dealers to publish their prices online, he said, adding a level of transparency that wasn’t there, or at least not as easily accessible, before the pandemic.

What’s expensive is always relative. A $28,000 Rolex is inexpensive compared with a $7.5 million car, but there is one model from the iconic watchmaker that has had a star turn during the pandemic: the Rolex Daytona with a ceramic bezel.

The watch has a retail price of $13,000 but has been selling for $20,000 to $30,000 in online auctions. Sotheby’s recently sold one for $28,000. “You can buy it retail, but the wait list is two to three years,” Mr. Lopez said.

Watches lend themselves to the online scrolling so many of us have been doing to pass the time. And that has pushed Sotheby’s watch department to move to weekly and monthly auctions, scrapping its previous format of semiannual New York auctions.

“We were getting a lot of consignors who wanted the cash for doomsday, and collectors who were willing to purchase because they were home and bored,” Mr. Lopez said. “We couldn’t get them to go with the traditional timeline for the bigger auctions.”

Data on who is buying what from where has allowed the auction house to further refine and target the watch auctions.

Part of the thrill of buying a collectible car is strolling among scores of polished, perfect automobiles. Once they leave the auction grounds, most of these cars will be parked in climate-controlled garages, shielded from the sun-dappled fields where they are shown, driven and coveted.

Next month would normally send some of the world’s most expensive cars to the Monterrey Peninsula for the annual Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, where rare automobiles are parked for a day on the 18th fairway at Pebble Beach Golf Links.

That’s not happening this year. Both Gooding & Company and Bonhams, two auction houses with large automotive departments, will present about half the cars they would have in a live auction, and rely on video and limited in-person viewing to drum up interest. Both houses are upbeat about the online demand.

“People are getting in touch with things that make them happy and that they love,” said David Gooding, president of his namesake company. “If they’re passionate about cars, they’re tapping into that passion. We’re seeing demand and interest as strong as ever.”

There is far less ambivalence now than ahead of a typical live auction. Sellers really want to sell their cars, and buyers are focused on getting the car they want. A few cars are priced in excess of $2 million, but many are in the $50,000-to-$100,000 range, he said.

To assure the cars’ condition, the auction house is maintaining them in a Los Angeles warehouse. “It’s critical for us to know what we’re selling and representing,” Mr. Gooding said.

Bonhams is similarly storing its cars, splitting them between Los Angeles and Bedford, N.Y., where specialists can arrange virtual or in-person viewings before the August sale.

Some of the highest-priced cars may be the easiest to sell at an online auction, said Jakob Greisen, head of Bonhams’ U.S. motoring department. The sale’s signature car is a 1934 Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 Cabriolet by Figoni, estimated to sell for as much as $7.5 million.

“Few people are going to walk in and say, ‘I’ll have that 90-year-old car I’ve never heard about,’” Mr. Greisen said. “It’s for a really sophisticated buyer who has had more time to think about their hobby and their passion.”

Where he thinks sales could struggle is in what he termed the impulse-buy range — around $250,000 — because people will not be walking around and getting excited by a car that they realize they can afford.

Fine wine can sit in a bottle for decades and, potentially, get better. But the primary mechanism for selling first-growth wine from Bordeaux, France — the most reliably collectible region in the wine world — is to sell wine futures a few months after the wine is put into a barrel. Futures, the prices for wine that won’t arrive in buyers’ cellars for several years, have traditionally been set by working with wine brokers through a marketplace called the Place du Bordeaux.

This year, the process of tasting young wines to divine which ones will age well was disrupted because no one could travel to Bordeaux to sample the 2019 vintage. To sell the wine, which is considered a top vintage, Bordeaux producers are discounting it heavily, said Tom Gearing, chief executive and a co-founder of Cult Wines, which manages about $165 million of investment-grade wine.

“With the uncertain economy, people are in the position to ask, ‘Do I really want to shell out money for a wine I won’t have physically for two years?’” he said.

To encourage buyers, producers, even among the top five Bordeaux houses like Rothschild and Margaux, have discounted this vintage as much as 25 percent from the 2018 vintage (which is considered not as good). As with all of these passion investments, fine wine is a deal only if you are among the lucky few who have weathered the economic crisis with disposable income and confidence in the future.



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