The auction business often runs counter-cyclical to wider economic fortunes, so it’s no great surprise that the strong results posted in 2011 by many of Britain’s regional auctioneers have been mirrored across the Atlantic.
Much the same pressures are in play. Yes, the middle market is in flux, and Americana has been hit hard in its soft underbelly, but an uncertain economy has brought more vendors to the plate, and low interest rates have encouraged those with money to 'park' it in good quality works of art, while the minimum lot thresholds at Christie's and Sotheby's continue to rise.
Most US regional houses are now perfectly happy to share a prime local consignment with the big two in the knowledge that the New Yorkers will pass on most items valued under $10,000 (and even some under $50,000) in favour of the big-money lots. Add to this the strong precious metal prices underpinning the jewellery and silver market (so much American silver had been scrapped in 2011) and the large volume of Chinese works of art that still reside in North America and, for many, the last 12 months were as good as any in recent memory.
Precise figures are not always easy to come by - many of the bigger players do not release annual sales totals - but the numbers available to the Maine Antique Digest include sales "in excess of $40m" at Leslie Hindman in Chicago (a 72% increase over 2010) and record years for both Skinner in Boston and at Doyle New York. Although neither issue sale totals, Skinner's 2011 was their "strongest year ever", with a 7% increase over 2010 and a 4% net increase over 2007, the company's previous best year, while at Doyle sales increased by 27% in 2011 over 2010, which had been the auction house's best year to date.
Dallas-based Heritage Auctions have seen "a big desire to invest wealth into tangible assets". Last year was the firm's best ever, with sales of just over $806m, a 19% increase over 2010's $677m and 10% higher than Heritage's previous best, $727m in 2009.
The bounce in the international coin market, a primary earner, has been key, but jewellery ($17.4m, more than double 2010's record year), silver and decorative arts ($7.43m, doubling its previous best) underline the progress the firm has made in mainstream disciplines.