Sotheby’s released some preliminary sales figures for the difficult year of 2020, when much of the auction business had to adapt to the closure of live in-person auctions and the invention of hybrid-style live-stream sales as well as expanded online auctions. In 2020, with still a few sales left to go in the season, Sotheby’s is claiming $3.5 billion in auction sales. That’s substantial drop of 27 percent from last year’s $4.8 billion auction total. But considering the disruption the industry faced, this is still a sign of remarkable health for the broader industry. The results are encouraging for a company that touts its desire and ability to innovate. On top of that $3.5 billion in auction sales, there was an additional $1.5 billion in private sales, the house said, amounting to a total of $5 billion.
The auction house said 15 percent of the $3.5 billion in sales came from online auctions although those events made up 70 percent of the firm’s number of sales. (The auction business skews toward the high-end sales when it comes to totals.) Sotheby’s took the opportunity of the release to continue to push the idea that the future of the auction business lies in digital innovation: “new web and mobile experiences removed friction from registering and bidding, resulting in 80% of all bids placed online,” the company said in its release. “Over 40% of bidders and buyers in online auctions are new to Sotheby’s, and number of buyers under the age of 40 doubled this year.”
Private sales, previously a strong suit for Sotheby’s, benefited from the auction rooms being shuttered by the pandemic. Negotiated sales for private clients rose by 50 percent to $1.5 billion in 2020, offsetting some of the lost open outcry sales caused by the pandemic cancelations.
Sotheby’s release also made much of their growing Asian business. Auction sales in the region reached $932 million. Worldwide, Asian collectors accounted for 30 percent of the sales. Buyers from the region won nine of the top 20 lots and bid on half of them. The “number of Asian clients bidding online is growing faster than anywhere else in the world,” the release said, “more than doubling in 2020.”