A View from the Market – Q&A with Harvey Cammell, Deputy Chairman of Bonhams UK

As the outbreak of COVID-19 has intensified, the UK art market, an inherently international industry, which thrives on both its domestic and global events, has felt the unprecedented effects. Despite this, the art market is proving a very resilient and flexible industry finding new and innovative ways to adapt to the ever-changing circumstances we are finding ourselves in.

Art Law & More brings you A View from the Market, a series of Q&As with figures from different realms of the art world as we uncover how they are adapting to the new normal, their reflections on how COVID-19 could change the future of the art market and the great importance of art and creativity.

We continue the series with Harvey Cammell, Deputy Chairman of Bonhams UK and Global Director of Valuations, Trusts & Estates. Harvey has a broad knowledge of fine and decorative arts developed over a 25-year career in the auction business. Harvey works with clients and their fiduciary advisors on the appraisal and long-term management of their collections and works closely on strategies for sale of individual items as well as large multi-category collections. Harvey has directed Bonhams’ largest and most successful 100% sold single owner collection auctions in its recent history, including The Juffali Collection House Sale in Windsor Great Park; The Jackie Collins Collection in Beverly Hills, and The Harlech Family Estate Collection.

Most recently Harvey has organised the BLUE Auction, a not-for-profit digital auction, in aid of NHS Charities Covid-19 URGENT APPEAL between 8 – 29 Apr 2020. Bonhams are auctioning artworks and unique experiences pledged by the UK’s leading actors, musicians, artists and sportspeople and raised a total of £405,300 for the charity.

What day to day challenges or benefits are you facing as a result of the current situation?

The closure of UK auction houses has meant that we have had to act quickly and flexibly to continue to offer as many of our services as we can.  We are offering valuations on line, providing advice by ‘phone and email and accepting items for future sales through our online consignment hub. We have converted some sales into online only auctions and others into behind closed door sales – an auctioneer will be present on the rostrum, and bids will be accepted online, on the phone, or by leaving an absentee bid. All bidding will be done remotely in accordance with the latest government guidelines. This will enable us to run an extensive spring and summer schedule of sales. We have also seen significant demand for private sales on lots that were previously destined for auction.

In your view, how is the global art market changing and adapting currently?

Given the lock-down happened just after TEFAF and at the very start of the international auction spring season, the market for the big blockbuster auctions has been put on hold, so it is hard to get a read on how prices may have been affected. The reliance on digital technology, already a strong feature in the art market, has taken centre stage, with clients clearly confident to transact in private sales with information provided by one-to-ones with specialists and of course high quality images and video footage. As with previous turbulent times, the demand for rare and important fine art and chattels tends to stay strong, and the prices achieved by selling privately suggests that demand is still healthy.  My view is that digital technology will play an even bigger part of the fine art auction industry going forward.

Have you been particularly impressed with any of the ideas or initiatives that particular individuals or organisations in the art market have developed in response of the current situation?

I’m a relative latecomer to the world of social media, but having run The Blue Auction, I have seen how this medium can attract a very rich vein of new bidders to the auction market. A great help to our business has been the innovative video conferencing mediums from Microsoft teams, Zoom, Skype and even Facetime. We are now holding Instagram valuation surgeries and clients are walking us around their houses on facetime as we provide virtual valuations in discussion with them. We have adapted our formal valuation contracts, particularly for probates, to allow us to provide certificated valuations for clients desperately in need of help; as long as we have adequate images and information on each item, we are happy to provide our professional opinion.

What long term effects (positive or negative) do you think this will have on the area of the art market in which you operate?

I think that clients will benefit from even easier access to advice on buying, selling and valuations, and the experience of bidding online will become even more engaging and fun and dare I say it, addictive than it already is!  The negative effects are obviously more concerning in the short/mid term.  Art trading necessitates the movement of people and chattels; any hindrance on the ability of our specialists to travel without a second-thought and for clients to be happy to receive us in their homes will indeed make business harder going until those restrictions are lifted.

Is art and creativity more important now than ever?

I think the lock-down has magnified the importance of culture as a way of offering a release from the grim reality of this terrible Covid crisis.  Whether it’s an appreciation of a beautiful painting, or fascination with a historical object, art and artefacts provide thought-provoking stimulation. I think this can only enrich our current isolated existence; a very good thing right now.

From a commercial point of view, the ways in which we can present our company, our services and of course our lots to our bidding audience have never been more creative, and the almost limitless possibilities of the digital revolution with virtual valuations in clients’ homes to virtual gallery tours of our salerooms has created phenomenal developments in our business, unthinkable a generation ago.

What are you doing/what do you think we should all be doing to prepare for when we go back to ‘normal’?

We are obviously preparing for what we hope will be a gradual shift back to normality  over the course of 2020.  From potential limited/pre-arranged access to public viewings, to a heavier reliance on receiving bids via online or the telephone rather than from the room itself, Bonhams will invest our resources to expand our client experience.  However, practically speaking, from an estates point of view, our business will continue to offer the same fundamental services that would have done when we were founded in 1793, assisting our clients with advice on valuations and sales.

What do you think is the most valuable lesson we can all learn from this new way of life?

Whether it’s an old fashioned face-to-face meeting or an online virtual zoom experience, we will always find a way to connect with each other and for business to be transacted.  The art market in particular has demonstrated impressive resilience, creativity and dexterity, and I have no doubt will continue to do so post covid and beyond.

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