We’ve just had one of those “they said it couldn’t be done moments”. You know what I mean: manned flight, landing on the moon, Leicester City winning the FA Cup (ok, that still hasn’t happened, but they won the Premiership), a British player winning the Men’s tournament at Wimbledon…
In our world, the moment came on June 29 when Sotheby’s launched what was, to all intents and purposes, a TV gameshow format for selling the world’s top-end art. OK, so the most expensive piece at $73 million, a work by the late Francis Bacon, sold on the phone, but the $300 million plus result for the 74 lots on offer was final proof positive that internet sales are not just for the cheaper end of the market.
It may still be a while until they bring the hammer down on an internet bid of $50 million or more, but it can now only be a matter of time after the world’s leading art collectors showed themselves only too willing to take part in this ground-breaking experiment.
This doesn’t mean the end of the live sale in its entirety – too much history and excitement is tied up with that – but it does mean that auctions have entered a new era. It may have taken the pandemic to accelerate this process, but now we’ve seen it in all its glory, it’s here to stay.
It’s a bittersweet experience for people, like me, who have spent so many years performing to a live audience from the rostrum.
The Royal Family has to deal with a lot of reputation management issues these days, but for those who think this is a modern phenomenon, a fascinating item coming up for auction tells another tale.
In the early 19th century the French watch-making genius that was Abraham-Louis Breguet produced the Tourbillon Watch, a sumptuous gold timepiece that was at the cutting-edge of horological technology. Sought out by the crowned heads of Europe, Breguet had supplied the demands of Marie Antoinette and the Tsar, the King of Spain and even Napoleon.
Much taken by the Tourbillon, in 1808 King George III of Britain – a keen follower of sciences and horology – decided to buy it.
The problem was, England and France were at war and for the King to be seen trading with the French and sending what was the vast sum of 4,800 French Francs across the Channel would have been a public relations disaster.
The records tell us that Tourbillon reduced the risk of the watch being seized by only signing the carriage inside it. Exact details of how it was delivered discreetly into the Royal hands remain unclear – hardly surprising bearing in mind the circumstances – but after all the trouble Tourbillon and his associates took to fulfil the order, it transpires that the king never fully paid for the watch.
The final irony is that Sotheby’s have chosen July 14 as the date to put up the watch for sale. That’s Bastille Day, the event that marked the beginning of the French Revolution and the end of the monarchy across the water.
Stephen Fry once wrote about how he came from a household that showed as much knowledge or interest in sport as hedgehogs show in embroidery. Yet somehow, even as one who had spent his schooldays devising new ways of getting out of the dreaded ‘games’, as an adult he came to love watching all kinds of sport.
So it is with much regret that many of us will be missing Wimbledon this year.
Around now, we would normally be gearing up for the first bowl of strawberries and cream as we watched Nadal’s crashing serve take out some poor unknown qualifier, or debating whether this is the year that Serena Williams finally beats Margaret Court’s slam record.
Sport is a fertile hunting ground for collectors because of all this, as well as the statistics, the records, the personalities and the sheer excellence and achievement.
Football, golf, tennis, cricket, baseball and many other sports have keen followings among collectors, with record prices rising into five, six or even seven figures on occasion.
Thinks of all those fans grabbing for the sweaty headbands, wristbands, tennis balls and – on rare occasions – racquets used in grand slam finals. Not only does this give them a connection with greatness; it can also prove a goldmine later on.
Auction houses will be allowed to re-open their doors to the public from June 15. What does this mean in practice? Well, I think above and beyond anything else, we must all use our common sense, especially if we are to avoid the feared second wave of the pandemic.
I think we can take inspiration from the way that supermarkets and others who have stayed open have been operating. It also means being careful with the way paperwork is handled, payments are processed from those bidding in the room when that goes ahead and, for our part, ensuring the health and safety of our staff.
However well we plan for this, doubtless unforeseen elements will arise to challenge us in what is, after all, an unprecedented and complex situation. So we will tread carefully. Patience will be key to everything we do, whether as service providers or on the part of those wishing to come and view items in person. For all the finger pointing and disgruntlement on social media with what has been going on and how the authorities have handled it, I have been supremely impressed with the forbearance and consideration of the public in general.
We will be doing our best to make sure everyone is safe and that a visit to our Fernhurst rooms is as enjoyable and rewarding an experience as it can be. And we will continue to provide the full live bidding offer online too. Around the country you will find other salerooms seeking to do the same. This business is here to stay.