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We can see from the 2021 results that the watch-auction business did better than ever, with a larger increase in sales figures than ever before, nearly doubling the numbers we saw in 2020. Between Phillips, Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Antiquorum, 2020 sales totalled just shy of $347 million, excluding private and charity sales. This number jumped last year, to reach more than $607 million. There are plenty of reasons for this unprecedented growth, from a ballooning watch market in general to a remarkable increase in auction houses offering online sales. Many of our commentators highlighted virtual sales as the biggest opportunity for growth in the auction business.
Sotheby’s and Christie’s are looking to shorten the delays that are inherently built into the auction business. For example, big auction houses’ traditional yearly cycles seem to be broken thanks to near continuous online-only offerings. This means that there is always something to bid on, satisfying the year-round appetite for buying and selling.
Being able to shift much higher volumes at much lower prices means that the work of an auctioneer looked quite different in 2021 than it did just two or three years before. Sam Hines, the soon-to-be-outgoing Worldwide Head of Watches at Sotheby’s, agrees. “Live auctions can take four months, [from] start to finish, but with a watch we are putting online, it could be up on the site within a week of it arriving and gone soon after that.” This quick turnaround is a massive incentive for many buyers; they have started to see the benefits of the online dealer model, where a watch can be turned around much more quickly than it can be within an auction house. This marks a shift in mentality from inside the houses, too. “It used to be the case that if there was a watch we didn’t want to put into a live auction, it would go online,” Hines tells us.