LONDON—In a radical shakeup of its sales calendar, Christie’s will cut six specialized, stand-alone sale categories from its London and European auctions and channel works of art from those categories into broader-themed sales. For the foreseeable future there will be no more stand-alone sales planned for Irish, Scottish and sporting art; British art on paper; Old Master drawings or 19th-century European art.
The biggest change is for 19th-century European art, which will now be included in Old Master sales. This will affect a potentially huge market: Sotheby’s currently turns over about £100million ($149.4million) per year from 19th-century paintings (excluding Impressionist art) in specialized sales worldwide.
Specialized sales of Orientalist art, a largely 19th-century phenomenon and a strong performer in the current market, will continue. Observers say that the changes have been made in areas where the market has been weak, where turnover is low, or where Christie’s has been underperforming. In the other affected categories, Irish and Scottish art, sporting art and works on paper will be merged into sales of Old Master art, Victorian art or 20th-century British art.
Christie’s is putting a positive spin on the changes, describing the “new international auction initiative” as part of a “long-term strategy” that was already in progress. Two years ago, with the supply of good historic British paintings dwindling, the auction house combined 18th-century British pictures with Old Masters for its London sales, and last year it began the process of winding up its stand-alone sales of 19th-century European art in New York. In the wake of those changes, Christie’s principal specialist in the area, Deborah Coy, left to take employment with Bonhams.
Director Richard Knight said the new structure will also appeal to the large number of crossover buyers who are active in more than one category. Christie’s estimates that a quarter of the value of Old Master paintings sales have come from clients who also buy 19th-century European art.
Officials also said that with its new Old Master and 19th-century art sales, Christie’s will become “the only auction house to showcase the greatest works of traditional art from a six-hundred-year time period, 1300–1900, in a single sale.” Some observers say it is the only auction house to recognize that drastic times call for drastic measures. The specialized sales were a product of the art boom, and the changes can be viewed as prudent pruning, appropriate to the new climate of reduced supply and demand. Although some jobs will be eliminated (a spokesperson put the number at a mere handful initially but would not give further details), Christie’s is currently retaining its main specialists in each affected category.