Christie’s released sales figures for the first half of 2021 today. The report indicates that the global pandemic has been inconvenient for the auction market, but far from catastrophic. After improvising throughout 2020, Christie’s seems to have dialed itself in to take advantage of a world awash in cash creating buyers eager to acquire significant pieces of cultural property.
Christie’s CEO announced the headline numbers of £2.5 billion ($3.5 billion) in sales for the first half of 2021. He also pointed out that Christie’s overall sell-through rate for the semester was a whopping 87% on all lots. That number has been fairly steady at 81-82% under Cerutti’s leadership.
The statistic is important for two reasons. In general, the aggregate sell-through rate is a strong indicator of demand in the auction market. Under Cerutti’s leadership, Christie’s has also made sell-through rates a focus. Strategically, the CEO believes that strong sell-through rates help build confidence among buyers that their cultural property will have continuing relevance. A 5% jump speaks to a quickening interest in cultural property during the pandemic.
It could not have been easy to deal with the uncertainty of 2020, but the numbers suggest it was worth putting up with for the strong gains. Christie’s $3.5 billion in total sales is up 13% from the pre-pandemic first half of 2019 and the best result since the banner art market year of 2015. Coming out of the pandemic, the auction market is building toward peak momentum.
Much of the gain comes from the record participation of clients in Asia who purchased 39% of live and online auction sales spending $1.04 billion. In categories that Christie’s broadly calls luxury—jewelry, watches, and vintage fashion items—participation by Asian clients was even higher with the buyers on the continent taking home half of the $356 million in sales.
Market share by region also shifted toward the EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) region, where 33% of the volume went. The US trailed taking home only 28% of the total; however, New York remained the top sales center with $1.1 billion in total auction results.
“Every auction is a global live event,” President Jussi Pylkkanen and chief auctioneer said reflecting on the dramatic shift from auctions oriented toward Europe, Asia or North America. Buyers from other regions were always present during the evening sale events but they were primarily represented by auction house relationship managers on the telephone. The new hybrid sales have attracted real-time audiences following and bidding on the web in a way that was not previously seen before the pandemic.
Asian buyers were also an important factor the luxury market, Christie’s Asian head Francis Bellin said. Spending from Asian buyers played a key role in restoring market confidence, especially with strong sales for jewels in Hong Kong. The Sakura diamond, for example, made nearly $30 million.
Christie’s CEO Guillaume Cerutti remarked that the market was seeing rare strength in both auction and private sales. For the first half, private sales had already reached $850 million in 2021. That’s a 41% rise from the previous year and a 238% increase from 2019. Also worth noting, Christie’s reports a third more private sales taking place above the $5 million level. Normally, private sales and public sales are counter cyclical with private sales rising as auction sales fall and vice versa. So far in 2021, both sales channels have been growing with strength.
New clients are playing an important role in this robust market. Christie’s reports that 30% of buyers in the first half of 2021 were new to the auction house. That’s up from 26% in 2019. Of that group, 31% can be considered Millenials, or much sought-after younger buyers; 32% were women, up from 27% in 2020; and the regional breakdown of new buyers is an interesting 39% from EMEA, 33% from the Americas and 29% from the APAC (Asia-Pacific) region.
The significant jump in sell-through rates, combined with advancing auction totals and private sales, speak to rare market confidence that should echo through the industry for the rest of the year.