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Auctions - Auction Results Soar, Despite the Health Crisis

Auctions Auction Results Soar, Despite the Health Crisis

Auction houses haven’t just weathered the Covid storm: they’ve benefited from it. Phillips had the most successful year for watch sales, ahead of Christie’s, Sotheby’s, then Antiquorum

After the Covid health crisis shuttered retail stores and put a damper on new watch sales, opportunities to keep the pre-owned market ticking have been welcome. This is why strong performances by online platforms such as Chronext are excellent news. Collectors who can buy and sell from their own homes, without masks or social distancing, have maintained momentum in the market. The same is true of auction houses. Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips, among others, have kept the collector’s market on a high, debunking fears that buyers might hesitate to make the leap from a real-life saleroom to a virtual one.

Efforts pay off at Christie’s

As it turns out, bidders were happy to make the transition. “We’ve made solid progression on pre-Covid levels,” notes François Curiel, who is Chairman of the Luxury Division and of Christie’s Europe & Asia. “Our ability to shift gears between live and online has delivered an exceptional 360-degree experience on parallel tracks.” Even so, success was never a foregone conclusion. French broadsheet Le Monde has reported that in Paris, almost 10% of Christie’s staff have quit the auction house, adding that “teams at Sotheby’s are also at the end of their tether. Most of the staffers who organise viewings have left, along with the entire IT department.”

Efforts were made that secured strong results for the auction house’s watch sales using both live and online channels. In addition to an almost identical number of in-person sales as pre-pandemic (eight in 2019 versus seven in 2021), the number of online sales rose from 16 in 2019 to 20 last year. In total, 2,900 lots changed hands in 2021 to achieve USD 205 million, a figure that is 157% up on 2019. 

Les maisons de vente aux enchères n’ont pas traversé la crise sanitaire : elles en ont tiré profit. Phillips est devenue numéro 1 du secteur horloger, devant Christie’s, Sotheby’s, puis Antiquorum

© Christie's

 Sotheby’s diversifies

2020 proved a transformative year for Sotheby’s, when sales came within a whisker of USD 100 million, “fuelled in part by this online market transformation,” notes the auction house, which also curates its own Buy Now marketplace. The 150 (mainly premium) watches currently on offer include a Richard Mille priced in excess of half a million dollars.

Like other auction houses, Sotheby’s attracted younger buyers thanks to initiatives such as interactive catalogues. Forty per cent of bidders are now under the age of 40. It ended 2021 with USD 142 million in watch sales, making this its best year yet — the previous record, in 2018, stood at USD 108 million —, with Asia alone accounting for 41% of this amount.

Phillips rises to the top

One auction house, Phillips, bucked the multichannel trend. Every one of the just five watch sales it held in 2021 was live, with the traditional mix of in-person and online bidding. The resulting USD 209 million established Phillips as the most successful auction house for timepieces in the world.

The November sale in Geneva alone garnered USD 72 million; more than a third of the year’s total. “Many of our customers found themselves in lockdown and so spent a considerable amount of time researching and seeking out the rare pieces they didn’t want to miss out on. We’ve also seen the emergence of a new generation of bidders in their thirties. The Middle East has woken up, too. Traditionally a region focused on new watches, it is now showing a pronounced interest in collectible timepieces. All of this has strengthened our position. We registered 700 first-time bidders in 2021. That’s a huge number,” remarks Alexandre Ghotbi, Head of Watches, Continental Europe and the Middle East. Of the USD 1.2 billion in global sales made by Phillips in 2021, 17% came from watches.

Only Watch: no records but a constant increase

On a more intimate scale (rarer too, taking place every other year), Only Watch didn’t set any new records in 2021 but did raise an impressive CHF 30 million on November 6. The actual bids topped CHF 29,700,000, following which a collector in the room rounded the final total up to CHF 30 million.

At Only Watch 2019, a table clock sold for CHF 9.5 million. If we remove it from the equation, Only Watch 2021 was in fact the most successful edition to date. Despite its unique status, Only Watch is wholly representative of how strongly watch auctions are performing right now.

Auction results soar, despite the health crisis

© Only Watch

Next in line

Further down the scoreboard, Antiquorum ended 2021 with sales worth USD 60 million. “We’ve doubled over the past three years,” notes CEO Romain Réa. The auction house has increased the frequency of its sales, which now include one in Italy. Its strategy continues to target buyers at every price range, sometimes with watches starting at CHF 1,000, while online sales can offer up to 3,000 watches. “We put social media to work,” comments Réa, setting the house apart from the “big three” which still take a conservative attitude towards social media.

Not quite in the same league, Ineichen is a name to be reckoned with, nonetheless. After securing total sales of CHF 2.5 million in 2020, it achieved five times more in 2021 at CHF 12 million. It’s worth noting that the auction house manages to convert 12% of occasional buyers into bidders. Chief Executive Artemy Lechbinskiy comments that “smaller sales with high quality lots are far more attractive to collectors and this is what we will be emphasising in 2022. We already have five sales scheduled. We will also continue our digital transformation. This is something that goes beyond the health situation. It’s a new reality for the auction world.”

For its first year, Iconeek in Geneva made CHF 2.5 million with its two sales. Its remuneration model is unusual in that it only applies a buyer’s premium – there is no seller’s premium. Sales are live online and lots are almost entirely Swiss. 


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