Lockdown Diaries – Byrnes of Chester

Author: Lawrence Bright

In the first of these chats, we will be talking to auctioneers about how their businesses have been impacted in the last year during the pandemic.  

Byrnes of Chester are a well-established provincial auctioneer and members of the Society of Fine Art Auctioneers, run by business partners Jo Boucher (JB) and Adrian Byrne, I spoke to Jo.  

Lawrence Bright (LB) – So cast your mind back to late March and the government announcement of the first lockdown. Did you have a plan? 

Jo Boucher (JB) – everyone knew lockdown was coming. We were lucky because we had a Fine Quarterly Sale just before lockdown which we knew would give us a financial buffer. But we went through a lot of soul searching. What are our finances? Will we have to close? How long can we last without any new auctions?  All this was before they announced the Furlough Scheme and the classification of auctioneers as non-essential retail – which was a strange moment itself. Until then no one really knew what auctioneers were! 

From the start, we did not want to consider having auctions if we could not offer viewing, so the announcement of the furlough scheme came as a huge relief and we simply shut shop. 

LB – Then what happened during lockdown? 

JB – We muddled through. Valuations were still coming in, which Adrian was doing from photos and I was able to deal with existing enquiries from home as we use the AUCTIONEER (Ed. Note:  easyliveAuction auction management system), which is cloud based. 

Then came the announcement that we could reopen in early June, only for the bank holiday announcement to say it was going to be put back another 2 weeks. We rescheduled the next fine sale and looked to start back with a general online sale.  

LB – So what happened when you came back? You have never done general sales online before so did you think it was going to work? 

JB – True we had never entertained the idea of doing general sales online. We always thought it important to give bidders the same level of service as we do in the Fine sales, i.e. condition reports, additional images etc. and we never previously had the resource or time. Also, we have always sold on a Friday and most of the items were cleared on the day and with fortnightly sales, we did not feel we had the space to store lots.  But we had of course been monitoring what was going on in the industry with auctioneers hosting live online only sales, so we were prepared to give it a go. Needs must after all!  But it had to be when we were happy for people to come and view, and of paramount importance was the safety of customers and staff. We took risk assessment seriously.  

Finally we set the date for the 24th June as our first general auction, with live online only bidding with easyliveAuction. 

LB – How was your first foray? 

JB – I remember looking at the sale total afterwards and thinking GOSH! “Our hammer price is 50% higher than expected!” Bidder numbers were up. We were getting crazy prices for things. 

LB – I am not surprised at that. Other auctioneers have been telling me the same thing.  And that’s great but how has it impacted the operational side given your previous worries of not being able to offer good service?  

JB – We looked at the add-on commitment and decided to offer the same level as we do for Fine art. We also said we would offer postage. It transpired that whilst the level of enquiries certainly rose, we found the general buyers were not as bothered about condition reports, many took it as a given that mixed lots would have the good and the bad.

We had been getting tons of commission bids via our website even before live bidding. easyliveAuction had streamlined this whole process as the absentee bids go directly onto our selling sheets and auctioneer’s “Rostrum” screen (Ed. Note: “Rostrum” is a part of the live bidding toolset), so the 1000 bids coming in via the website manage themselves. Since going live this has gone to about 600 as more people have chosen to bid live. 

The shipping element wasn’t too bad either. A lot of people were bidding locally and came to collect. As the bidder numbers have increased, the parcels have gone up. We went from 14 parcels in the first sale to now 35 in the last sale although this is small compared with the 112 we did for the September fine sale. And we simply could not do it without AUCTIONEER. The shipping in the invoicing module saves us an inordinate amount of time in processing. It just adds on to their existing invoice even if they have paid.  And we print out our packing notes and go off to the saleroom to gather items, and we also keep the client updated on their delivery status in the shipping module. 

LB – And what was it like without any bidders in the room? 

JB – Without wishing to be offend our dear customers, I admit the relative calm on sale day has had its benefits!  

It took time getting use to staring into the camera and we had one funny indecent when an online bidder mistook one our staff for a room bidder and rang in to complain there were people bidding in the room, so I had to make an announcement during the sale to categorically state there were no room bidders.

LB – So overall it sounds like it has been a success. So what does the future bring?  

JB – Very much so. Our bidder numbers and results have gone through the roof and we have been able to manage our time well. We have had to change our sales cycle to three weeks from two, mainly because of the additional time it takes to offer by appointment viewing and then to close down a sale with deliveries. Also, we have decided to close during the current lockdown as in our interpretation, we cannot offer viewing.  With click and collect for 900 lots, it would be hard to find the hours needed to book in delivery slots and with it being November, the weather undoubtably would hold things up further. 

But this is only a temporary set back and our next sale is scheduled for the 9th of December. Again this will be online only and we think this format will continue for some time as I cannot see public auctions being allowed to go ahead and a lot of our clients are elderly, so I do think there will be a lot of people not wishing to sit in a room for hours. 

LB – So instead of selling live, have you considered the possibility of putting all your lots on a timed auction. 

JB – It is not a bad idea. I mean we are on the rostrum for a number of hours. I am not entirely convinced that we will go down the route yet. Maybe I need some convincing. 

LB – Well I had better get back to my proper job then!  

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