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Auction Houses Report Sharp Increase in Annual Sales

Preliminary figures released by Sotheby’s and Christie’s indicate a steep rise in global art sales for 2006, fueled by record demand in categories ranging from Old Master paintings to contemporary art. The growing ranks of newly wealthy buyers in Russia, China and the Middle East continue to factor significantly in the rising art market, both

NEW YORK—Preliminary figures released by Sotheby’s and Christie’s indicate a steep rise in global art sales for 2006, fueled by record demand in categories ranging from Old Master paintings to contemporary art. The growing ranks of newly wealthy buyers in Russia, China and the Middle East continue to factor significantly in the rising art market, both houses affirm.

According to preliminary data, Sotheby’s worldwide auction sales last year totaled $3.66 billion, up 36 percent from the $2.7 billion posted for 2005. The house will release detailed fourth-quarter and annual results in March.
The Year’s Top Sale at Auction

Sotheby’s claimed the highest auction price of the year when Dora Maar au chat, a 1941 painting by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), fetched $95.2 million, nearly twice its low estimate of $50 million and the second-highest price ever achieved for an artwork at auction. The buyer, said to be Russian, spent $102.7 million, accounting for nearly half the Impressionist and modern evening-sale total last May (ANL, 5/23/06).

“We had a terrific year in 2006,” Sotheby’s CEO Bill Ruprecht said in a statement to ARTnewsletter. “Our sales grew substantially faster than Christie’s did. Nevertheless, sales without the essential context of costs, revenues and profitability, which our competitor never provides, is a meaningless measure for any business. . . . Our focus is on creating value for our clients, not winning a meaningless share race, which is reminiscent of the General Motors race in the car business, which has hardly had a happy outcome over many years.”

Asked to respond, Christie’s declined to comment. Christie’s International, which is privately held and does not release detailed financial reports, said that 2006 sales had realized £2.37 billion ($4.4 billion) up from £1.8 billion ($3.2 billion) in 2005. In addition, Christie’s says, private sales for 2006 totaled more than $256 million, compared with about $184 million last year.

Key drivers of Christie’s sales growth included: Impressionist and modern art, totaling $1.23 billion, up 81 percent over 2005; and postwar and contemporary art, where sales reached $822 million, up 46.8 percent over the prior year. The house noted that 525 works made more than $1 million each in 2006, a considerable increase over 2005, when 340 works earned more than $1 million each.

Calling the year “phenomenal,” Christie’s International CEO Edward Dolman said the company continues to invest in emerging markets such as Russia, Dubai and China. The house held its first auction in Dubai last May, realizing $8.5 million. The next sale, of international modern and contemporary art is planned for Jan. 31.

The fledgling division of Chinese contemporary art, launched a year ago at Sotheby’s, also continues strong under the direction of Xiaoming Zhang, a former manager of strategic development at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. The inaugural sale, held March 31, realized $13.2 million, far surpassing the house’s $6/8 million estimate and pushing prices to record levels for several artists. Some observers, however, think the heated bidding is driving prices to unsustainable levels; they predict that this sector will eventually see a correction.

Victoria Lu, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Shanghai, says some buyers are behaving more like investors than collectors, “buying for a quick profit. They buy directly from the artist’s studio or from galleries and then go directly to auctions to sell.”

While Christie’s and Sotheby’s have long maintained offices in mainland China, including those in Shanghai and Beijing, they have focused mainly on selling in Hong Kong, which is a free port.

In an effort to secure an auction foothold in mainland China, Christie’s held its second branded sale in partnership with Beijing auction house Forever on Oct. 18 (ANL, 11/14/06, p. 6). The house realized $6.6 million—considerably less than the $12.1 million made the previous year.
Record Fall Sales

Both Christie’s and Sotheby’s saw sales hit record levels during the fall auctions. Impressionist and modern sales alone realized $847.3 million, almost double the $457 million total of a year-ago fall (ANL, 11/28/06, pp. 2-4).

When the Christie’s evening auction on Nov. 8 scored $491.5 million, the house called it “the most valuable sale in the history of auctioneering . . . nearly half a billion dollars.”

A highlight of the event, and of the overall season, was the sale of four paintings by Gustav Klimt (1862-1918)that had been restituted to the heirs of the original owners in early 2006 (ANL, 7/5/06, pp. 6-8; 11/28/06, p. 2). Collectively the works brought in a total of $192.7 million.

Sotheby’s evening sale on Nov. 7, hailed by the auctioneer as its best in 15 years, realized $238.7 million. Highlights included Nature morte aux fruits et pot de gingembre, a circa 1895 painting by Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), which earned $36.97 million (estimate: $28/35 million); and Le fils du concierge, 1918, by Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920), which took $31.1 million, far above the high estimate of $18 million.

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