Auction houses endure

The Covid-19 crisis has prompted the antiques auction world to innovate and embrace the latest in technology.

COVID sometimes seems to have us all boxed in on many levels. Masks, social distancing, attendance limits on indoor gatherings, travel restrictions — alL of these constraints might make it seem as though the entire world of collecting, both for buyers and sellers, has a great big “Closed for Business” sign on all the entrances. 

But happily, that’s not the case. In the past several months, Skinner has been working  successfully outside the box. New methods combined with the tried and true mean we can continue to offer myriad opportunities for collectors, de-acquisitioners (that’s a useful new term) and people who want to learn more about the world of antiques and collectibles.

Once upon a time, the idea of bidding by phone was a daring innovation. It caught on, and how. It was no longer necessary to be “in the room.” Bidders realized that remote bidding was a convenient, efficient way to acquire the objects of desire they’d seen in printed catalogs. Sellers realized that new technology increased the pool of competitors for their treasures.

More recently we’ve all become accustomed to e-commerce. Online catalogs with high-resolution photographs can show every aspect and detail of an item, in close-up and high magnification. Online bidding has proven to be a flexible, useful tool. And the high prices achieved at recent Skinner online-only sales emphasize the appeal of new technologies.

For example, the Skinner May 31 auction of American and European artworks met with great success, doubling pre-auction estimates. Record-high interest came through participation in the United States, Canada and throughout Europe. A high point was Alfons Walde’s dynamic winter scene, “Aufstieg der Schifahrer.” It reached $612,500, including the buyer’s premium, against an estimate of $250,000 to $350,000. Bidders, many of them first-timers, competed via the Skinner website, Bidsquare, telephone and absentee bids.

Virtual reality creates a virtuous circle in other ways as well. Anyone with internet access can email photographs and information for up to three items for expert consideration by one of Skinner’s regional appraisers. An estimate of value, delivery instructions and consignment terms will be offered for any item that would fit well in an upcoming auction.

“Virtual Tuesday” occurs in Massachusetts on the first Tuesday of the month. There is also “Maine Monday.”  And conveniently close by for WAG readers is “Westchester Wednesday.” Complete information is on Skinner’s website.

But wait — there’s more. Specialist virtual talks accessible at provide insider insights from Skinner experts. Recent topics have included chicanery, skullduggery and shenanigans in the art market, and an intimate portrait of George Way, a self-taught scholar and collector of 16th- and 17th-century English and Dutch art and furniture.

Another virtual outreach at Skinner’s website can be found in the blog, with subjects ranging from rarity in numismatics, to the history of the catalogue raisonné, the complete catalog of an artist’s work, to the allure of Chinese export silver. There are also videos such as a recent expert tutorial on English salt-glazed stoneware.

Skinner has found creative and safe ways of continuing the personal interactions that can be so important to prospective sellers and would-be buyers.

In-person house calls following government guidelines can be arranged. Limited to a single collecting interest, such as silver or fine art, under-the-tent consignment events with timed and controlled access are being held outdoors in Skinner’s Marlboro, Massachusetts, headquarters. Where appropriate and feasible, private exhibition previews by appointment only are offered.

No question, recent events have brought about huge changes in the way almost everything is bought and sold. The marketplace for antiques and collectibles has been profoundly affected. Skinner’s has shown itself to be highly adaptable to these challenging circumstances with a creative mix of new and old technologies to satisfy clients’ needs.

The auction world really is a story of constant renewal. Old things become new again, moving from old homes to new ones, bringing their beauty and their stories to delight new surroundings and new stewards.

There’s a metaphor for all of us in that.

For more, contact Katie at or 212-787-1114.

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