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Regional Auction Houses Find Opportunities in Market Downturn

Amid the economic crisis, Christie’s and Sotheby’s, the largest auction houses in the world, have recently announced layoffs and salary reductions, and have all but eliminated guarantees and loans extended to consignors and buyers.

NEW YORK—Amid the economic crisis, Christie’s and Sotheby’s, the largest auction houses in the world, have recently announced layoffs and salary reductions, and have all but eliminated guarantees and loans extended to consignors and buyers. Meanwhile, several smaller, regional auction houses have been hit less hard by the market downturn, and have been finding ways to attract new buyers and consignors while retaining their current clients.

The Burchard Galleries auction house in St. Petersburg, Florida, which handles estate sales including lower-priced antiques and fine and decorative art, attempts to keep the proportion of lots with reserves to about 5 percent in any given sale as a way of encouraging buyers. “If people know an item is going to be sold [without reserve], they may be more enthusiastic in their bidding,” Todd Burchard, the house’s director of fine arts, said.

People are still buying, the houses say, but they may be unsure about how much to spend. According to president Nicholas Lowry, Swann Galleries, New York, has lowered estimates and reserves in its more recent sales, which sometimes leads to tension with prospective consignors. “We’re being much pickier with consignments and have to say no to some consignors. I don’t want anyone to lose money, but I want things I can sell,” he said.

New York auction house Doyle has sought to broaden the services it offers to consignors, and now offers the option of purchasing objects outright from estates rather than taking them on consignment. “We do this so that people don’t have to wait for months for an auction to get their money,” said Doyle spokesperson Louis Webre.

Leslie Hindman, an auctioneer in Chicago, said she has also been making contact with people who represent estates, letting them know that the house is very interested in items that are valued under $20,000. “The big auction houses are focusing on the high end,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense to ship something to New York that’s going to sell for a few thousand dollars.” Hindman is also opening a consignment gallery for furniture and decorative arts in the auction house’s new, larger space, as well as increasing its private treaty and Web sales.

Massachusetts auction house Skinner Inc. recently moved its main operations from the town of Bolton to a larger facility in Marlborough. Stephen Fletcher, executive vice president and one of three co-owners, said that because of the move, Skinner expects to increase its number of local buyers and has adjusted its marketing and advertising to achieve that goal.

In St. Louis, Ivey-Selkirk auction house has beefed up its local radio and television advertising, according to Mark Howald, the company’s executive vice president. Ivey-Selkirk has also stepped up postsale activity, which he said has cut its final buy-in rate in half. “As soon as the auction is over, we get on the phone and on the computer to people who have shown interest,” he said. “We’ll tell them the reserve price and give them a period of time in which they can buy at the reserve.”

Part of auction houses’ process for repositioning themselves in a down market is focusing on the categories that have generated the best sales and on where their largest group of buyers lives. Ivey-Selkirk has been “doing more in the area of modern and contemporary art,” said Howald, which includes decorative art and design, while Leslie Hindman found that “the photography market looks pretty good, relative to other categories.”

Shannon’s auction house in Stamford, Connecticut has “been trying to target contemporary art, which we don’t usually sell. I’m trying to hybridize things,” auction house president Gene Shannon told ARTnewsletter.

All of the smaller auction houses surveyed reported a greater use of the World Wide Web, partly as a channel for taking bids—Litchfield County Auctions in Connecticut, for example, conducts all of its major auctions through iGavel.com—as well as a means of sending out downloadable flyers and brochures by e-mail to reduce their printing and mailing costs.

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