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The Covid pandemic presented—and still presents—numerous logistical challenges to the auction market for art. The three main houses, Phillips, Christie's and Sotheby's, were finally able to unlock the auction market this past Summer by creating a new type of livestream auction that barred direct bidding but retained the trappings and excitement of its marquee evening sales. Having been deprived of the opportunity to conduct sales for most of the first half of the year, all three houses tried to make up for the lost revenue with a series of sales in October, November and December that loosely followed the traditional auction calendar.
One outcome of this improvisation was that the old, location-based format, where all three houses converged upon a city to stage sales on successive nights, gave way to sales that often straddled locations on different continents. In an effort to assuage clients, Christie's, Sotheby's and Phillips held a series of smaller live-streamed auctions dedicated to 20th-21st century art, spread out across the season up until the end of December 2020. Across New York, London and Hong Kong sale locations, there is one observable fact: fewer ultra-high value works have been offered at auction even though there are credible reports that demand remains quite high for these types of works.
Nevertheless, the leading lots of the New York modern and contemporary auctions were those by blue-chip names like Pablo Picasso, Cy Twombly, Alexander Calder, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still and Paul Cezanne.
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