Sales at Christie’s were up 16% for 2013 at £4.5bn ($7.1bn), a record annual total for an auction house.
The increase was driven by huge prices
in the Contemporary and Modern art sectors, as well as expansion in
Asia. What's more, say the auctioneers, 30% of buyers were new and
they accounted for 22% of all sales by value.
What is not clear from the figures,
however, is how profits have grown by comparison. Such is the
competition for trophy lots in the fields of Contemporary and
Modern art that consignors have been able to demand a slice of the
buyer's premium in some cases, as well as refusing to pay any
vendor's commission at all. Add to this the increasing re-emergence
of guarantees, and margins for these sectors are clearly being
squeezed to a degree.
It is this tendency to sacrifice
profits and investor value for market share that has reportedly
angered corporate investor Daniel Loeb, who has tried to unseat
Sotheby's chief executive Bill Ruprecht in recent
Sotheby's publish their full results
later in February but have promoted highlights from the past year
to coincide with Christie's announcement. The bulk of these come
from the Contemporary, Impressionist and Modern sectors for both
houses, with Post War and Contemporary art alone accounting for 29%
of all Christie's sales at £1.3bn ($2bn).
Although Sotheby's have yet to publish
their annual totals, they listed the works that gave them seven of
the top ten prices in the Impressionist and Modern sector,
including Grande tête mince (Grande tête de Diego), the
1954 bronze sculpture by Alberto Giacometti, which scored the
highest auction price for an Impressionist and Modern work in 2013
when it took $44.5m in New York on November 5.
Both auctioneers are making the most
of their expansion in Asia, both in terms of holding live sales in
mainland China and in securing the top prices for Contemporary
However, it is the burgeoning
importance of private sales that is perhaps most interesting.
Sotheby's have only released figures for the first nine months of
2013 so far, but even these stand at £602m ($951m), 37% up on the
same period for the previous year, while year-end figures put
Christie's private sales at £760.5m ($1.19bn), a rise of 20% in
sterling terms on 2012.
Steven P. Murphy, chief executive at
Christie's, said: "Our strategy to invest in new markets such as
China, new channels such as private sales and online sales… has
enabled Christie's to grow."
At Sotheby's Mr Ruprecht was equally
upbeat: "The exceptional growth this year of buyers new to
Sotheby's contributed to our 21% rise in sales of Impressionist
& Modern Art, 50% increase in sales of Asian Art, and stellar
results across the business."