Sotheby’s charges for coffee – impact of recession on auction houses

AUCTION HOUSES RECESSION

A tongue in cheek look at the impact of the recession on Sotheby’s at its Spring 2009 Southeast Asian sale in Hong Kong.

With Asia seen as the great hope for an art market now in deep recession, watchers have been waiting with some trepidation for the Sothebys Spring 2009 auctions which  kicked off Hong Kong’s art sale season.

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In sum the results are as expected, prices and stocks have been severely cut and as a result sell through rates are reasonable. The offerings are carefully designed to appeal to hard core collectors who have been happy to absorb the reduced stock, perhaps attracted by the prices, perhaps to support the prices of their own holdings and maybe just because as one gallerist has said, junkie-like ‘they need their fix’.

Ho hum. No, not much to ring the office about there. But tongues have been wagging about prices at Sothebys nevertheless ….the prices of the coffee not the art.

This season for the first time Sothebys is charging auction attendees HK$20 (US$2.25)  for a cup of coffee at a stand-up bar. Even the chairs, tables and sofas are gone. The impact of this offence is somewhat softened by a large professional looking notice suspended on the wall telling us that a portion of the proceeds is to be contributed to the Sichuan earthquake relief effort…that’s good…. though we did wonder whether the cost of making and hanging the sign exceeded the contribution from the sporadic coffee sales.

More disappointments follow. First up, let us take a look at the lecture programme this year. What…no lectures? That is a blow. This year Sothebys is here to sell not to educate, ok we are disappointed but it is a recession, we get it.

Now over to the catalogue section to pick up the free thumbnail summary. It is HK$40 did you say? – No we don’t want that one,  we want the free one, you know the booklet that you always give out for free. Ah yes I see, you are charging for it this year are you?

By this time we are wishing we had not arrived so early, no coffee, no chairs, no lecture programme…..and noone here, no wonder.

Oh well there is nothing else for it, we will go into the auction room and sit and wait. That gives us plenty of time to look at the long row of Sotheby’s staff sitting at the telephone banks. They look at us with tight ashen faces over the top of rows upon rows of empty seats and we look back at them because there are not many other people in the room to look at.

Who is that up there? Kevin Ching CEO of Asia, that is a surprise. No perhaps not…he must be here to monitor the sale. …he is interested in to gauging the atmosphere in the room for himself probably.

And so the sale starts.

Oops our mistake, no Ching is actually manning the phones. Recessions mean layoffs and all hands to the deck in rough seas we suppose …..but the CEO manning the phones? Is that what things have come to?

We are beginning to get a bit anxious…. Are there more troubles at Sotheby’s than meets the eye? Is Sotheby’s so worried about the state of the art market that it needs to pile up one parsimony on another? We are here at the auction but perhaps Sothebys is right…times are really really bad. In fact you know what… perhaps this is actually not a very good time to be buying art. We push our bidding paddle out of sight under our jacket.

Hang on, hang on…maybe we are over-reacting and these new initatives at in-your-face frugality are just a shareholder-pleasing tactic. Maybe they know their clients and know that the price of a coffee and a catalogue is paltry…irrelevant.

Yeah right but don’t they have a clientele who ís used to and expects VIP whim-pleasing treatment? Is this is a good way to present a  brand associated with prestige, luxury and stability? Is it not true that when times are toughest, that is just the time to be super-solicitous towards the core long term affluent customers? What is going on?

No we must have got it right the first time. There is only one conclusion to be drawn: Sotheby’s believes times are very bad indeed. The outlook for the art market is so poor that extreme client-facing economies must be made whatever the consequences.

Sliding our hand under the jacket on the seat beside us, we decide that out of sight isn’t good enough. We pull our paddle out and shove it firmly under the chair and out of reach. No it is not the right time to be buying art. Sotheby’s has convinced us.

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