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Leading Auction Houses Post Record-Setting Totals for ’07

The major auction houses have announced record-breaking sales for 2007, with Christie’s and Sotheby’s each topping $6 billion worldwide.

NEW YORK—The major auction houses have announced record-breaking sales for 2007, with Christie’s and Sotheby’s each topping $6 billion worldwide.

Sotheby’s reported an increase in auction and private sales of 51 percent, from $3.66 billion in ’06 to $6.2 billion in ’07. At Christie’s during the same period, these sales jumped 36 percent, from $4.4 billion to $6.3 billion. (Sotheby’s will disclose fourth-quarter and annual results for ’07 in March. Christie’s, which is privately held, does not release detailed financial reports.)

Market Outlook Assessed

Meanwhile, at least some observers see clouds on the horizon for the art market in the coming months, resulting from volatility in financial markets around the world. On Jan. 28 analyst George Sutton, of Craig-Hallum Capital Group, Minneapolis, lowered his outlook for Sotheby’s in 2008, based on estimated auction sales of “just over $5 billion (down approximately $300 million from yet-to-be-reported 2007 results).”

Says Sutton in his report: “We previously believed that 2008 would carry forward the very strong auction market seen in 2007. However, as we take a sober look at the slowing outlook for the U.S. and other worldwide markets, we anticipate that high-end auctions may take a breather in response.”

Sutton still rates Sotheby’s stock a “buy” but has reduced his price target from $55 to $45 a share. Over the last year, shares of Sotheby’s stock have ranged from $27.55 to $61.40. As ARTnewsletter went to press, Sotheby’s stock was trading around $29 a share on the New York Stock Exchange.

Bonhams reported roughly $600 million in global sales for ’07, a 20 percent increase over ’06 and a 45 percent increase in profits for the same period. Phillips de Pury and Company revealed worldwide sales of $308 million last year, more than double the $137 million achieved the year before.

Both Christie’s and Sotheby’s credited the greater demand for Asian art, along with postwar and contemporary works, for fueling much of the increase. Postwar and contemporary art sales at Christie’s increased 75 percent, to $1.56 billion, while American paintings climbed 52 percent, to $147 million. Russian artworks leaped 88 percent, to $144 million, and Latin American art jumped 44 percent, to $61 million.

Impressionist and modern art continued to do well in ’07, earning $1.44 billion, an 8 percent increase over ’06. Also notable was the twofold increase in private treaty sales, to $542 million at Christie’s. Old Master paintings, however, fell 3 percent, to $304 million. Small declines were also experienced in European furniture (5 percent) and books and manuscripts (15 percent).

Marc Porter, president of Christie’s America, predicts that postwar and contemporary art sales will continue to dominate the house’s sales in the foreseeable future. He further believes that sales of Asian fine art, jewelry and watches will rise steeply.

“We’ve seen a doubling of sales every year for the last five years in Hong Kong,” Porter points out. “I expect that by the end of the next decade, we’ll see Hong Kong at the same level as New York and London.”

Highly significant to Sotheby’s was its sale during the year of four of the five highest-priced lots, mainly from the postwar area: Mark Rothko’s White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose), 1950, which fetched $72.84 million, above the $40/50 million estimate; a 5,000-year-old Mesopotamian figure of a lioness, which won $57.2 million (estimate: $14/18 million); and two paintings by Francis Bacon—Study from Innocent X, 1962 ($52.7 million, against an unpublished estimate above $30 million [ANL, 5/29/07, p. 2]), and Second Version of Study of Bullfight No. 1, 1969 ($45.96 million, against an unpublished estimate of $35 million).

At Christie’s the top-selling lot was Andy Warhol’s 1963 Green Car Crash, which sold for $71.7 million (estimate: $25/35 million).

Bonhams Expands Operations

Increased sales in Islamic jewelry, as well as American, European and Asian fine and decorative arts, have led Bonhams to open salerooms in San Francisco (2002), Los Angeles (’03), Manhattan (’05), Hong Kong (’07) and Dubai (mid-’08).

In 1995 the auction house reported worldwide sales of $65 million, surging to $304 million by 2003. This spring Bonhams will move from its eighth-floor space in Manhattan’s Fuller Building to larger quarters nearby at 580 Madison Avenue at 57th Street, the former home of the Dahesh Museum, where it will occupy three floors, with street frontage.

“We expect the number of sales in New York to rise dramatically,” says Jon King, vice president and director of Bonhams New York. “We will concentrate on what does best in New York,” King notes, namely American and European paintings, books and manuscripts, jewelry and 20th-century decorative arts.

Bonhams has also revealed that, having sold its Scottish headquarters in Edinburgh last year, it will remain in the city center with its move to new premises on Queen Street. The moves in New York and the U.K. represent what chief executive Malcolm Barber describes as “a substantial investment.”

The more than twofold rise in sales at Phillips de Pury points to the success of their focus on cutting-edge contemporary art and design, among other areas. Additionally, with the auctioneer’s move last year of its European headquarters to Howick Place, near Buckingham Palace, the increase in London sales grew more than eightfold, to $41 million.

Cites ‘Overall Strength’ of Art Market

“There have been increases dollarwise in every country where we sell,” Brook Hazelton, managing director of Phillips, told ARTnewsletter. He credits the growth to several factors, including “the overall strength of the market; the emergence of new buyers from the developing world making purchases at the top end; and our focus on contemporary art, photography, jewelry and design.”

Perhaps most notable in the Phillips sales is the increasing support of new buyers from China, India and Russia as well as the U.S. In 2005, reports Hazelton, 60 percent of Phillips’ buyers were American, but now “nearly half of our buyers are non-American.”

Sotheby’s increase in sales revenues came about even as the auctioneer was reducing the number of lots in individual sales—42 percent fewer than at Christie’s. “We are focusing on higher-end lots,” a spokeswoman for the auction house said.

Both Bonhams and Phillips, on the other hand, have been expanding the number of auctions they hold and, in some cases, the categories of objects they sell.

Phillips is planning to double its sales calendar, a spokeswoman noted, “producing special theme sales” such as the April 3 Japan auction in London, “Kyobai, Japanese Art and Culture,” which will include ceramics and contemporary art as well as the images of contemporary Japanese photographers.

The auctioneer also has been holding lower-priced “Saturday@Phillips” sales, which it plans to increase in size and number.

For its part, Bonhams’ London salesroom is holding the first-ever auction devoted solely to graffiti, or urban art, on Feb. 5.

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