Gemma Sudlow selling the Basquiat skull picture 'In This Case' for $81m ($93.1m including premium) on May 11 at Christie’s 20/21 sale in New York.

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The firm’s results from the first half of 2021 included record participation from Asia Pacific clients who accounted for 39% of total purchases by value.

In all of the ‘luxury’ categories (jewellery, wine, watches and handbags) more than 50% of Christie’s offering was bought by clients from the region, with some niche areas now dominated by Far Eastern purchasers. Over 70% of watches at Christie’s were sold to Asian buyers.

Buyers from the EMA countries (Europe, Middle East and Africa) accounted for 33% of transactions and the Americas 28%.

Sales increase

Total auction sales at Christie’s from January to June were $2.64bn, with private sales taking the headline figure to $3.5bn – 13% higher than pre-pandemic levels and the firm’s second-best aggregate in six years. With an average of four bidders engaging for each lot, the 87% sell-though rate was the firm’s best ever (the usual is 81-82%).

Private sales were stronger than ever, representing 25% or $850m of transactions. This was up 41% on 2020 with particular growth across jewels and Old Masters.

CEO Guillaume Cerutti, said: “This is something a little new. Usually the private sales are up when the auction market is challenging. This year both auction and private sales are equally strong.”

Responding to the wave of customers from Asia/Pacific countries is one of Christie’s three key areas of current focus (soon the firm will offer bidding via a WeChat mini-program).

Others included the ‘NFT revolution’ (the huge sums of money changing hands for digital artworks) and the marketing of late 20th and 21st century art as a single category.

With more of Christie’s offerings now sold digitally, and most live sales now adopting a hybrid approach, online sales continue to experience significant growth (up 178% on 2020 and close to 10% of revenue), with the average online lot value now around $27,000.

Dirk Boll, president of Christie’s in Europe, Middle East, Russia and India, described the first six months of UK border changes after Brexit as “a challenge with costs” but one that was “not as large as we thought or feared it might be”.

While some lots subject to extra duties and taxes are now being offered in Paris rather than in London, he said it largely remained the case that “the choice of sale site is decided by where we think the best market is. The market goes where the buyers are.”

Christie’s says that, as part of its diversity programme, over the past six months more women have presided over live sales from Christie’s rostrum than ever before: 76% of marquee evening sales this year featured female auctioneers, with the current auctioneer gender balance now 50-50% (the male to female ratio was 66-34% six years ago).

London slips back

Sotheby’s has not released official figures from the first half of the year but the most recent ArtTactic report estimates its total sales from January to June 2021 at $2.84bn versus $1.21bn in 2020 and $2.5bn in 2019.

Sotheby’s sales in Hong Kong overtook those in London for the first time.

Next to New York ($1.25bn) it became the firm’s second-most important market with 23.2% of sales totalling $659.4m with London trailing at $542.4m (19.1%).

The report concluded: “New York remains the dominant destination for the global auction market.

“However, Hong Kong has been able to assert its presence with a series of record setting auctions. It is still to be seen if this is a temporary or permanent shift but as the UK adjusts to its new role outside the EU, and Asian buyers continue to drive global demand, it is hard to predict.”