After closing their galleries and sending employees to self-isolation, auction houses have boosted their online sales to maintain their presence in the artworks market.
Major London-based house Sotheby's has closed its London, Hong Kong, Dubai, Geneva, Milan, Paris, and New York offices, throwing their marquee May auctions into doubt. Main rival Christie's, meanwhile, said it is "working swiftly" to reschedule postponed auctions.
Speaking to AFP, Giles Peppiatt, director for modern and contemporary African art at fellow London-based auction giant Bonhams, said: "It's a threat to all of us, but I do think we'll get through it."
Although no longer able to hold live auctions, the pandemic has accelerated the move to online sales.
"We thank our stars that we have online bidding. When online sales first started, all the auctioneers thought it would suck the life out of the auctions. But it's amazing that the thing we feared most at the time is probably going to be our savior," said Peppiatt.
Jen Zatorski, president of Christie's America, told a media conference call that the company had responded by accelerating the reprogramming of its online sale platform using its own technology developed over the last decade. "The art market and our clients are ready and wishing for this type of digital engagement and transaction," she explained.
The outbreak poses different challenges for various sized auction houses, and for different segments of the market, experts said. Pierce Noonan, the chairman and CEO of London-based auction house Dix Noonan Webb, said that nimble smaller firms could thrive. "Number one: It's going to be technology. This is a defining moment," he said.
His house, which specializes in small collectibles such as watches and jewelry, is planning to hold a live online sale next week, with the auctioneer presiding from home, if necessary. A cut of the proceeds will go to Britain's National Health Service (NHS).
For her part, art economics expert Kathryn Brown, from Britain's Loughborough University said: "A sad truth is that art survives disaster. People continued to buy art during the First World War."