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Auction houses – are they returning to in-room now that society's reopened?

At various points throughout the pandemic, we have posed the question as to whether the UK’s major auction houses will return to traditional in-room auctions, or whether they will persist with online and remote alternatives.

When we last checked in with our auction contacts back in May, the UK was still in lockdown and some months off so-called ‘Freedom Day’. Now, of course, society has reopened to a much greater degree and, as of now, the highly successful vaccine rollout has helped to break the link between catching Covid and being seriously ill or dying.

This means, while cases continue to rise, the number of people dying and in intensive care continues to remain at a relatively low level as we head into autumn. As a result, in-person events without mask-wearing or social distancing have started to happen much more frequently – albeit more often outside than inside.


But has the reopening of society without any major issues so far led auction houses to rethink their future plans? Or, as we enter autumn and winter – months where illness, respiratory infections and colds are typically far more widespread – will consumers continue to prefer remote alternatives?

We spoke to some of the UK’s biggest and most successful auctioneers to find out where they stand on returning to in-room auctions and whether there is any consumer demand for it.

Toby Limbrick, Owner, Network Auctions

With society now fully reopened, do you have any plans to return to in-room auctions?

Online auctions have worked phenomenally well for us, and we see no advantage to buyers or sellers returning to the room. People have quickly adapted to online bidding and buying, and this convenience suits their lifestyle better than the previous in-room auction model.

There is no need to take time off work to travel, people can click and buy wherever they are, and this has led to more bidder registrations. On average, across the 22 sales Network Auctions held, we’ve had three times more bidders for our online auctions compared to our in-room auctions.

More bidders mean there is increased competition which usually equates to higher hammer prices, and as auctioneers, achieving the best price for our clients is our primary focus.

Have you seen any clamour from consumers for a return to the ballroom, or do they actually prefer the new way?

All the research we’ve conducted points to buyers loving online. The principal reason is convenience. Having to attend an in-room auction now (although it’s only been 18 months) seems dated. Despite everything opening up, there’s still much uncertainty about the future and if rules may change again depending on new variants.

People remain reluctant to make big future plans and commit to events, especially if it involves travelling via public transport. By holding our auctions online, we can remove that uncertainty and provide an easy solution for people.

Jeremy Prior, Managing Director, Auction House

Will you be going back to traditional in-room auctions?

Livestream sales have been spectacularly successful for us – even more so than we could ever have imagined. Not only have our success rates gone up, but we are seeing three to four times the number of people engaging with our auctions as we did when sales were held in the room, both in terms of registered bidders and others simply interested in watching and experiencing the excitement of the auction process.

Many more younger people have become involved whilst the numbers of our regular customer base have remained unchanged.

Our analysis indicates that there has been a 10% increase in the engagement of 18–24-year-olds with our sales, and a 5% increase in the 25-34 age category during the pandemic, whilst the engagement by those aged over 65 has stayed exactly the same.

We need to take care not to disrupt this new demographic won over the course of the Covid crisis – and there’s a risk that a return to room only auctions might do just that.

Livestream auctions have enabled us to attract bidders to sales from all over the world during the past 18 months – including successful bids from Hong Kong, America and Greece.

We must remember that from the public’s perspective, there is still a reluctance to meet in large numbers unless absolutely necessary – particularly when bidders pre-pandemic often brought members of their family to the room, so might not want to expose them to what they perceive is a greater, and unnecessary risk.

The power of video tours has been phenomenal, with many of our buyers bidding on the strength of the video alone. A further point we have to consider is the speed of our sales. Pre-Covid, auction lots were running at between 20 or 30 lots an hour. We’re now down to something like 10-15 lots an hour. So, if we were to return to the room in a ‘hybrid’ format, we would need to take account of the fact that sales can now take up to twice as long to complete.

But whatever choice we make, the last few months of the year are looking very positive. The number of lots entered into our September auctions is up year-on-year and as far as a return to the room is concerned, what’s right for one of our salesrooms might not be right for all. So, ultimately, this is a decision we will make on a region-by-region basis.

Gurpreet Bassi, Chief Executive, Bond Wolfe

Now that society has reopened and the vaccine rollout continues to be a big success, do you have any plans to return to in-room auctions anytime soon?

Although our live-streamed, ‘behind closed doors’ auctions have produced some amazing results, I still don’t think that you can replicate the buzz of a full auction room.

We therefore want and believe that we will return to in-room auctions at the earliest opportunity, and we are gearing up to be back in the room for as early as the December Auction.

However, the first consideration for us has always been the safety of our staff and the public, and this will continue to be foremost in our minds. We will therefore continue to follow the latest government guidelines and we will only return when we believe it is safe and appropriate to do so.

Have you received any feedback from consumers that they want this, or do they prefer online?

The best feedback is the constant flow of new records for Bond Wolfe’s online audiences, total lots per auction and total sale prices achieved. Bond Wolfe’s auctions have experienced huge demand in a thriving market despite Covid-19 restrictions.

Remember, our in-room auctions were always live-streamed and purchasers have always been able to bid remotely via phone, internet or proxy, so going fully remote because of Covid-19 was only an extension of this.

However, we are experiencing increasing demand from people eager to get back to the room, I think they miss the buzz as much as we do.  Even when we start returning, I think we’ll develop a hybrid of the ‘old way’ and the way in which we’re currently operating, as many bidders will continue to choose to bid from the comfort of their homes or offices.

Andrew Parker, Managing Director and Auctioneer, SDL Property Auctions

Will you be returning to in-room auctions anytime soon?

There’s a lot of talk about whether auctions will return to rooms. With our live-streamed National Property Auctions hitting audiences of 15,000-plus each month we don’t plan to return to the amount of room auctions we used to run as we couldn’t fit anywhere near that amount in a single venue. It’s clear people love the online format and I think the flexibility it affords buyers and sellers is key to attracting more people to property auctions.

As a market, property auctions have to look forward and continue to make a case for why they’re not just for property investors and how they can work for all types of buyers and sellers. I think live-streamed auctions have played a big part to make property auctions more accessible to a much wider audience.

Andrew Brown, Director of Auctions, Strettons

Now that society has reopened, does Strettons have plans to return to traditional in-room auctions?

This is something that we are giving careful consideration to. We have recently surveyed our auctions database to gather the opinions of our clients as to whether they would like to see a return to in-room auctions. We do not have the full results of the survey available yet, but initial indications are that in-room bidding would be people’s preferred choice of bidding even if we retained the option of bidding over the internet.

Results also suggest that buyers are more likely to bid at a physical rather than digital auction. We are looking forward to completing this research and assessing the best option for our buyers and sellers over the coming weeks.

Ultimately, the decision of whether or not to return to the room will have to be based on what is best for our clients. It can’t be for nostalgia. Our job is to get the best price for our clients. Once we have taken on board the feedback from our customers, we need to carefully consider which is the best way to achieve that, in-room or digitally.

Has there been a clamour from customers to return, or do they actually much prefer the new, remote way instead?

I think there will always be a difference of opinion here. The industry as a whole has responded well to the move to digital auctions, but virtual sales have lessened the overall ‘theatre’ of the auction day and many people do miss that, no one more so than me.

I also really miss the interaction between buyers and sellers and initial feedback from our research is that clients miss the personal nature of in-room auctions. Being in the room provides the opportunity to network, meet people and catch up with clients. This is something that is much harder to replicate digitally.

However, given the success of the move to digital auctions, we are not seeing people desperate to get back into the room at all costs. Maybe if sales had been hugely affected over the past 18 months we would be seeing stronger demand for a return to the room. With digital sales, auctioneers have a much wider net of potential buyers.

For example, at our September sale, we sold a 0.22 acres development site with planning for two restaurants and 60 residential units in Northampton for £1.64 million against a guide of £1.37 million. This may well have still sold in an in-room sale, but local buyers no longer have to travel to London to bid on a property or rely on telephone bidding which makes the process easier. This opens up more opportunities for auction houses going forward.

I think the likely outcome is that we may consider combining both approaches, therefore catering for the preferences of a wider range of sellers and buyers. Given our swift response to bringing auctions online and its success, I would say that anything is possible!

Paul Thompson, Managing Director, Pugh & Co

Do you have any plans to return to in-room auctions?

While society is certainly opening up and the return towards normality continues, from the point of view of property buyers at Pugh’s auctions, the market has adapted really well to online sales and people have welcomed the convenience and safety of online.

A return to in-room auctions is something that we’re continually reviewing. However, we haven’t reached a decision yet as to when we might begin holding traditional sales again – it will inevitably depend on demand from our clients, and buyers, as well as the wider market.

James Emson, Managing Director, Clive Emson

Do you have plans to return to in-room auctions?

We are continuing with our online-only auctions, which are highly accessible from a laptop, smartphone or tablet, for the time being. Given our wide geographical reach, from Essex to Cornwall and as far as Yorkshire and Wales, it would be irresponsible in the current climate to return to in-person auctions. However, the situation is under constant review and we would look to return to in-person auctions when it is deemed safe to do so for clients and staff.

Cathy Holt, Associate Director, Sutton Kersh Auctions

Will you be returning to in-room auctions?

We are continuing with live online virtual auctions for the remainder of the year until everything is a little more settled with Covid-19. However, we have noticed that many of our clients are asking when will we be returning to the room, so there is clearly a demand now for live in-room auctions.

In light of this, we are aiming to return to in-room auctions in the new year, but we will be offering customers a choice of both room and online bidding allowing them to benefit from the changes we have made to our business model over the past 18 months. 

As a business, we have been very lucky that we were able to adapt our business model and still deliver successful auctions that were watched by hundreds of people throughout the country.


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