By Frank Kilbourn
The year 2020 was a year for the ages and presented challenges at every level of our operations. Despite the ravages of a global pandemic, Strauss & Co remained committed to its vision of being an innovator and leader in the sale of modern, post-war and contemporary art, decorative arts, jewellery and fine wine.
A brisk schedule of auctions, including three hybrid sales held after the introduction of Covid-19 health regulations, saw the company successfully defend its turnover, grow the number of lots handled and vastly improve its geographical reach and new-client list.
In a year marked by widespread social and economic turmoil, Strauss & Co achieved a combined turnover of R316.6 million. This sum is not far off the 2019 total of R319.4 million and represents a very credible result in the circumstances. The company grew its lot sell-through rate to 76% from 65% in the preceding year, and, very encouragingly, new buyers accounted for almost a third of all completed sales. I ascribe our successes to the amazing commitment of our staff, integrity and scalability of our digital infrastructure and – most importantly – the incredible support of our clients.
When the reality of Covid-19 dawned on us in March 2020, Strauss & Co’s management team redirected its energies to developing new business protocols. Health and safety was paramount, but so too was ensuring the economic wellbeing of everyone involved in the auction trade. We operate in a very public sphere and Strauss & Co functions almost like a bourse. To cease trading for a prolonged period would have significant negative effects on South Africa’s art economy, as collectors require the assurance of a transactional platform that offers liquidity.
Our immediate response to the pandemic was to accelerate our online growth strategy. In May 2020 we hosted South Africa’s first-ever virtual sale, with our auctioneers leading the live-streamed sale from studios set up in Cape Town and Johannesburg. Held in partnership with Invaluable.com, the world’s leading international platform for buying art, antiques and collectibles online, the two-day sale was a huge success. The sale earned R84 million with a lot sell-through rate of 81% and value sell-through rate of 84%. All the lots in the Bordeaux-themed wine session found buyers. The fine wine division of Strauss & Co came of age in 2020 with an incredible lot sell-through rate of 90% and value sell-through rate of 97.4%, in the process re-defining the market’s perception of the value and collectability of our top wines and vintages.
Hearteningly, we managed to sustain this early momentum throughout the second half of the year – while still innovating with sales formats and media. One of the big lessons of 2020 for us was that the geographical location of an auction is no longer relevant, and is indeed quite limiting. To this end we developed NORTH/SOUTH, an ambitious multi-day, multi-location sale. Held in November 2020, the sale included a well-received session devoted to contemporary South African ceramics, a new category for us, as well as a focus on post-war and contemporary sculpture. Our contemporary art sale, launched in 2018, is another example of Strauss & Co focussing collectors on new and/or overlooked categories of collectables. These initiatives play an important role in developing our client base. A quarter of our lots in NORTH/SOUTH went to new buyers, which is very impressive and meaningful.
Single-owner collections remained an important aspect of our business, even in 2020. Our May sale included a fine selection of Dutch East India Company collectables consigned by a private collector. In July we sold works by JH Pierneef and Irma Stern from an important survey collection of South African art assembled by a Johannesburg collector. The sale also featured an important bronze by Anton van Wouw consigned as part of a small collection by a Pretoria collector. Our NORTH/SOUTH catalogue included a strong allocation of single-owner collections, notably a diverse consignment of decorative arts from the estate of a European collector, rare Burgundy and Rhône wines from the private cellar of a single collector and a significant bronze by Sydney Kumalo consigned by the Late Desmond Fisher Collection. We were proud to handle the large Tasso Foundation Collection of important South African art assembled by the late businessman and collector Giulio Bertrand of Morgenster.
Strauss & Co’s week-long online-only sales have been a fixture of our sales programme since 2013, and continue to show remarkable scope for growth. We sold 3130 lots through our seven online-only sales in 2020, earning a combined turnover of R45.7 million – more than doubling our yield through this sales channel over the previous year. (In 2019 we earned R20.3 million from six online sales.) It was especially uplifting to see the ceiling for higher-value works sold online surge in 2020. It points to growing maturity and trust in exclusively transacting online.
It goes without saying that doing business digitally requires stable and secure infrastructure. I am proud to state that Strauss & Co offers both. Our existing digital strategy enabled us to quickly retool our activities, without significant business interruption, to offer a seamless online transaction. We are able to offer bidders from all over the world a safe and secure environment to participate in real-time bidding.
Strauss & Co has always stressed the importance of good corporate citizenship. In 2020 we donated R761 820 to 17 organisations. Recipients included the Solidarity Fund and the Vulnerable Artist Fund. We also hosted six charity auctions in support of artists, distressed communities and animal welfare.
It would be remiss of me not to remember the lives lost during this difficult year. The pandemic was not an abstraction: people died and industries dear to us at Strauss & Co, in particular the arts and wine trade, suffered. We look forward to better 2021.
Exiting 2020, Strauss & Co found itself in a positive place. We retained all personnel and staff morale remains high. We grew our client base and extended our footprint internationally. We remained a market leader and innovator. The rolling impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, which endures, remind us not to be complacent. We nonetheless offer thanks and gratitude to everyone who contributed to our business in a year like no other.
. Frank Kilbourn is Strauss & Co Chairperson.