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Auction Houses Score Dynamic Mid-Year Returns

Christie’s and Sotheby’s have posted robust increases in auction revenues for the first half of 2005, citing the presence of major new contemporary art buyers and the strength of emerging art markets, including China, Russia and the United Arab Emirates.

NEW YORK—Christie’s and Sotheby’s have posted robust increases in auction revenues for the first half of 2005, citing the presence of major new contemporary art buyers and the strength of emerging art markets, including China, Russia and the United Arab Emirates.

The demand for contemporary art, particularly among newly wealthy buyers, raised prices for many younger artists and sent overall results soaring. In the spring auctions held from May 3-13, the two houses’ combined totals for contemporary art achieved $300.2 million, edging out Impressionist and modern art sales, which fell to $298.2 million from $387.9 million last fall.

At Sotheby’s, a Steep Increase

In an earnings report released Aug. 9, Sotheby’s reports that for the first six months of 2005, auction and related revenues totaled $247.7 million—an increase of $22.7 million above the same period last year. The house attributes the rise to significant improvements in auction commission margins —primarily owing to a lower level of major single-owner sales. Intense competition between Sotheby’s and Christie’s for the right to sell top collections often results in sizable guarantees to major consignors. (A guarantee is the amount the house agrees to pay the consignor regardless of the eventual price realized at auction.)

By region, auction and related revenues were flat in North America for the six months ending June 30, though this figure was offset by higher commission margins. European revenues rose 12 percent, while those in Asia were up 54 percent.

In the second quarter, Sotheby’s says, auction and related revenues chalked up $175.6 million, an increase of $9.4 million, or 6 percent, over the second quarter in 2004, despite a 13 percent decrease in auction sales. Second- quarter income from continuing operations was $42.5 million, or 67 cents a share, compared with $41.1 million, or 66 cents a share, for the same period a year ago.

Comments CEO Bill Ruprecht: “These excellent second-quarter 2005 results include our highest second-quarter revenues ever and our best income from continuing operations since 1990.”

Strong sales of American paintings in New York in May ($40.4 million), as well as London sales of Impressionist and modern art ($108.6 million) and contemporary art ($48.4 million) in June, fueled the improved results, Ruprecht points out.

Sotheby’s shares closed down 39 cents, or 2 percent, at $17.13 in trading on the New York Stock Exchange on Aug. 26.

At Christie’s, a Buoyant Half Year

On Aug. 17 Christie’s—a privately held company, owned by François Pinault, that is not required to report detailed quarterly results—cited worldwide auction sales of £846 million ($1.6 billion) for the first half of 2005.

This compares favorably with auction sales of £666 million ($1.19 billion) in 2004. Christie’s notes that its private sales for the first half of 2005 made £33 million ($62 million), a notch below the £34 million ($62 million) reported in British pounds last year.

Says Christie’s International CEO Edward Dolman: “The extraordinary growth was driven principally by . . . high-end auctions of postwar and contemporary art, Impressionist and modern art, jewelry, Asian art, European furniture and Old Master pictures.”

Christie’s New York saleroom at Rockefeller Center recorded £368.9 million ($693.4 million) for the first half of 2005, while Christie’s King Street location in London took £262.9 million ($494.2 million) for the first half of 2005. Impressionist and modern art topped the house’s international departments with £232.3 million ($436.8 million) in sales, with postwar and contemporary art posting £158.6 million ($298.1 million).

Sales of Asian art in Hong Kong hit a new high of £71.2 million ($133.8 million) this past spring. A record price for a a Chinese oil painting was set when Zao Wou-Ki’s triptych Juin-Octobre, 1985, sold for £1.3 million, or $2.3 million (see ANL, 6/21/05; see also ANL, 4/26/05).

“We are seeing new buyers from all around the world . . . Russia, China, the Middle East,” Christie’s spokeswoman Andrée Corroon told ARTnewsletter. “Specific to postwar and contemporary art,” she points out, “hedge fund, real estate and investment banking backgrounds add depth to the market, but the buyers are a true mix of established collectors and new collectors.”

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