How Sotheby’s Transformed in an Unprecedented Year

How Sotheby’s Transformed in an Unprecedented Year


As 2020 draws to a close, we took a look back to discover some of the incredible moments and insights that defined this time of change. Sharing the beauty of art and objects from afar brought us together in new and exciting ways, and led to memorable seasons underscored by innovation, adaptation and market leadership.

  Dominic Lipinski - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images

Online Is Where the Action Is

The marketplace swiftly pivoted online, in 2020 70% of all auctions took place online, and 80% of bidding. More than 380 online auctions realized $558 million, over three times the volume and over seven times the value for 2019. Buyers were not afraid to raise their virtual paddles, even at the highest levels, as shown by a bidding battle between online and telephone bidders that drove Francis Bacon’s Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus to achieve $84.6 million.

More than an Auction House

The advantages to buying and selling art privately appealed to more collectors than ever – and with $1.55 billion worth of private sales, it was a record year. Two new gallery spaces, one in the Hamptons and one in Palm Beach, bring works available for private sale to locations where collectors gather, and Sotheby’s Gallery Network connects clients to a range of artworks from some of our most trusted gallery partners.

Also appealing to those who were looking to shop outside the auction calendar this year was the newly launched Buy Now platform, an immediate way to purchase specially curated mix of art, design, jewels, watches and more.

Growth in Asia Has No Limit

For the 5th consecutive year, Sotheby’s has been the market leader in Asia. In 2020, Asian clients were responsible for 30% of Sotheby’s worldwide auction sales, and of the top 20 lots sold worldwide, nine went home with Asian collectors. Online, the power of Asian buyers is increasing faster than anywhere else in the world, more than doubling in 2020.

The Demand for Luxury Goods Is on the Rise

Passion-fueled purchases for luxury items like jewels, watches, handbags, wine and sneakers drove sales to exceed $600 million in 2020, which included 260 online sales that totalled $150.5 million, a five-fold increase over 2019. Among the highlights, Michael Jordan’s Game Worn Autographed Nike Air Jordan 1s from 1985 sold for an outstanding $560,000, setting a new world auction record for any pair of sneakers at the time.

Expanding the Definition of Cultural Icons

In 2020, we reinvented what a masterpiece can be. Cultural achievements and milestones of all kinds were celebrated with the sales of unique trophies like a trio of Alfa Romeo concept cars, a pair of game-worn Nike Air Jordans, a dining table by Carlo Mollino and a toy crown-turned-cultural-relic m ade famous by rapper Biggie Smalls, which sold in Sotheby’s first-ever auction devoted to Hip Hop.

All Eyes Are On Us

More than ever, our audience went far beyond those participating at auction. Sotheby’s livestreamed marquee sales attracted more than four million views, owing in part to our growing following across social channels, Sotheby’s has 3.8 million followers, the largest of any auction house.

No Exhibition? No Problem

Being unable to see artworks in person didn’t stop collectors from buying – instead they relied on a host of innovative ways to preview artworks from afar, including videos, virtual exhibitions and tours, and one-on-one video chats with specialists. At the very highest level, works in the marquee auctions were bought after having been previewed through Sotheby's virtual platforms.

Julian Cassady Photography

New Collectors Flock Online

Sotheby’s is open to all, and this year new buyers came out in record numbers, especially online – 44% of bidders and buyers in online auctions were new to Sotheby’s.

Giving Back

During this unprecedented year, Sotheby’s supported artists, individuals, and communities in need, organizing and facilitating new charity initiatives around the world. From an auction benefiting Christy Turlington Burns’s maternal health nonprofit to MayDay, a charity sale for Covid-19 relief, Sotheby’s expanded the art of giving, raising over $40 million.

2020 Major Moments

  • January
  • February
  • March
  • April
  • May
  • June
  • July
  • August
  • September
  • October
  • November
  • December
  • January 23 & 24
    The personal collection of interior designer Mario Buatta achieves $7.6 million, 2.5x the sale’s high estimate (with 99% of 922 lots sold).

    (left) A scene from the exhibition for Mario Buatta: Prince of Interiors
  • February 11
    David Hockney’s The Splash sells for £23,117,000 / $29,820,930 / €27,509,230 (est. £20-30 million) during London's Contemporary Art Evening Auction.

    (left) David Hockney's iconic work The Splash, painted in 1966
  • March 18
    A bottle of Karuizawa 52 Year Old Cask #5627 Zodiac Rat 1960 achieves £363,000 / $435,273, setting a new record for the most valuable bottle of Japanese Whisky.

    (left) The Karuizawa 52 Year Old Zodiac Rat Cask #5627 51.8 abv 1960
  • April 28
    A Cartier ‘Tutti Frutti’ bracelet achieves $1.34 million in an online auction, the highest price for any jewel sold in an online sale at Sotheby’s and the highest price for any jewel sold at auction in 2020.

    (left) The gem-set, diamond and enamel 'Tutti Frutti' bracelet, Cartier, circa 1930
  • May 1 – 8
    Sotheby's online COVID-19 charity auction with Google, MayDay raises $450,000 for the International Rescue Committee.
  • June 29
    Sotheby's inaugural live global auction event, featuring three evening sales and conducted remotely by Chairman and auctioneer Oliver Barker in London, achieves $363.2 million (93% sold). Some highlights: ‘White Glove Auction’ (100% sold) of works from The Ginny Williams Collection; 100% of lots sold from the Collection of Harry W. And Mary Margaret Anderson; Francis Bacon’s Masterpiece Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus, sells for $84.6 Million.

    (left) A shot from the June Contemporary Art Evening auction
  • July 31
    An ultra-rare Rolex Daytona JPS reference 6264 in 18-carat gold achieves £1.2 million / $1.5 million, breaking the record for a watch sold in an online auction (third time since April), and setting an auction record for a Daytona JPS and the record for a wristwatch sold in the UK.

    (left) The Rolex Cosmograph Daytona Paul Newman "John Player Special", Ref 6264, circa 1969
  • August 15
    A 2001 Ferrari 550 GT1 Prodrive sells for $4.3 million in RM Sotheby’s online only SHIFT/MONTEREY sale, making it the most valuable car ever sold in an online-only collector car auction.

    (left) The 2001 Ferrari 550 GT1 Prodrive
  • Julian Cassady Photography
    September 15
    The inaugural Hip Hop auction achieves $2 million in New York, headlined by the crown worn by Notorious B.I.G. in Barron Claiborne’s ‘K.O.N.Y.’ photograph, which sold for nearly $600,000.

    (left) The crown worn by Biggie when photographed as the King of New York, 1997
  • October 9
    In Hong Kong, the autumn auction season realized a combined total of HK$3.35 billion ($432 million) from sixteen auctions, making it the eighth consecutive season to exceed $400 million. A highlight of the season, a 700-year-old rare ink painting from Yuan-dynasty master painter Ren Renfa sold for HK$306.6 million (US$39.6 million), making it the most valuable Chinese ink painting ever sold at Sotheby's.

    (left) A shot from the Hong Kong Modern Art Evening Sale, featuring the artwork Nu by Sanyu (sold for HK$168.6 million, US$21.7 million)
    Sotheby's announces the opening of a new gallery location in Palm Beach. The 2,700+ square-foot space showcases a wide-ranging selection of fine art, design, jewelry, watches and luxury cars in a curated lifestyle setting, all available for immediate purchase and continuously rotated throughout the coming months. Select auction highlights will also travel to the space for preview, ahead of their respective sales.

    (left) Inside Sotheby's Palm Beach gallery, located in The Royal Poinciana Plaza
  • New York City Ballet x Sotheby's, choreography by Peter Walker featuring dancers India Bradley and Sebastian Villarini-Velez. November 30, 2020. Credit Photo: Erin Baiano
    The inaugural Festival of Wonder presented a luxury auction series celebrating the finest examples of jewels, watches, design, handbags, sneakers alongside a charity auction, LoveEMC, sold to Benefit Every Mother Counts. In celebration of the Festival of Wonder, Sotheby's partnered with the New York City Ballet for an exclusive original performance inspired by the Nutcracker.

    (left) New York City Ballet x Sotheby's, with choreography by Peter Walker featuring dancers India Bradley and Sebastian Villarini-Velez

Top Results of 2020

Top Lots of the Year

Looking Ahead

Upcoming Auctions & Exhibitions

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