Bitesize Daily: Michael Roberts – PFK Auctioneers

Posted by Emma Restall in Blog

July 7th 2020

Michael is the Head of Department, Auctioneer & Valuer at PFK Auctioneers, Penrith, Cumbria.

What have you been doing during lockdown?

I’ve worked throughout lockdown, keeping the business ticking over with online sales/valuations and adapting our business model to ensure a strong second half of the year. For the first two months I worked on my own, with staff furloughed for safety. We’re now gradually bringing staff back to work, a huge relief!

Despite the lockdown, demand for art and antiques sales has remained high and I’m proud that we’ve been able to service this demand safely online, whilst many other firms have been closed. Online only trading was permitted throughout the lockdown and we’ve enjoyed great success.

Is there anything in particular you have learned from the last few months?

Although I’ve worked ridiculous hours (late nights, all nights, early morning, weekends) I have to admit I’ve enjoyed working throughout the lockdown, reassessing what we do and why. Running the business by myself for two months covering everything from cataloguing and auctionering to accounts and paying vendors has helped me streamline operations. I’ve learnt and developed new efficiencies that will help us moving forward. I’ve also enjoyed building stronger ties with several key clients as well as welcoming the many new clients who’ve contacted us whilst other firms have been closed.

How do you think the art industry will change, going forward?

Lockdown has forced us all to engage and utilise the technology and best practices that have existed for a long time and about which we’ve all said ‘that’s a good idea’ and never did anything about! Video conferencing, webcast auctions, online marketing and appointment only public access are all efficient and effective ideas which we all should have been doing – finally now we have been forced into it!

As the imminent recession bites, I expect the industry to become leaner in staffing numbers and more results driven. Esoteric and poorer performing specialist departments will be closed or merged. Online marketing, especially social media, will become pre-eminent, with physical sales/shop/gallery space reserved for a small proportion premium sales.

Our adapted business model, for instance, is online based featuring two sales per month – a live webcast of valuable antiques and interior objects and a timed sale of house clearance and useful items. Whilst buyers can arrange telephone and absentee bidding for the webcast sales, there is no provision for ‘in-the-room’ bidding. This adaption has been brought in to respond to Coronavirus, but I expect this to be our format for the foreseeable future as the model is more efficient and more profitable.

Do you have any advice that you would give to people entering the industry?

There’s never been a tougher time to make a career in this industry – and there’ll be a fight for jobs as increasing numbers are made redundant. You’ll succeed if you are prepared to work relentlessly, don’t take no for an answer and have high standards.

Are there any art organisations that you have been particularly impressed by in the way that they have evolved and responded to the current situation?

An interesting aspect to the lockdown has been the way in which different firms have responded to the lockdown. Whilst many larger auction firms simply closed, re-opening only recently, many smaller firms, such as mine, stayed open in an online only format as described above. Firms such as these include Whittons, Ryedale and British Bespoke Auctions and all deserve high praise for their tenacity!

As you’d expect I’m also keeping a close eye on how firms are responding as we now ease out of lockdown. I’ve been impressed with Sotheby’s approach to webcast sales, using high quality camera footage and integrating their offices in different geographic locations to create a compelling watch.

Despite Coronavirus, there remains a great deal of opportunity for those firms who can adapt quickly and spot potential. Let’s see that the future brings!