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Christie’s Sales Surged 53% in 2010 on Contemporary-Art Rebound

"Nude, Green Leaves and Bust," by Pablo Picasso, sold for $106.5 million at Christie’s International in New York in May. Photographer: Ramin Talaie/Bloomberg

Christie’s International said that the art market had regained strength and stability after its sales climbed 53 percent in 2010.

Total sales of 3.3 billion pounds ($5.2 billion) were a sterling record for the 245-year-old London-based auction house, it said in an e-mailed release. The auction market for contemporary art bounced back, contributing 602.6 million pounds to the total -- an increase of 147 percent. The $106.5 million paid at Christie’s New York for Pablo Picasso’s “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust” in May was a record for any work of art in a salesroom. A total of 606 works achieved more than $1 million, as against 381 in 2009.

“There’s been a big rise in folks collecting and investing,” Steven Murphy, Christie’s new chief executive officer, said in an interview. “Traditional clients have been buying more and we’ve had a lot of new buyers. Demand has grown in Asia and quite a few masterpieces came on the market.”

Impressionist and modern art continues to be Christie’s’ most lucrative collecting area, contributing 766.6 million pounds of auction sales, a 53 percent rise. The recovery in the market for contemporary works came after a year in which prices declined by as much as 50 percent during the financial crisis.

Roy Lichtenstein’s 1964 painting “Ohhh… Alright…,” which sold for $42.6 million in New York in November, was the most expensive work at contemporary auctions that increasingly relied on established, rather than cutting-edge names.

Discreet Transactions

Private sales contributed 369.3 million pounds in 2010, an increase of 39 percent. Christie’s said it expects further growth in these discreet transactions, which represented 11.4 percent of total sales in 2010.

“I don’t see it as cannibalizing the auction market,” Murphy said. “It provides a service that is essential to our client relationships.”

Private sales, including those at the London-based Haunch of Venison gallery, its wholly owned subsidiary, represented 12.5 percent of Christie’s worldwide art business in 2009.

Growing demand from China boosted auction sales of Asian art and French wine to 569.6 million pounds and 45.8 million pounds, increases of 115 percent and 70 percent respectively.

China’s mania for Chateau Lafite and other trophy French labels saw wine become the seventh biggest selling auction category at Christie’s, above American paintings and Russian art.

Auctions in Hong Kong rose 114 percent to 465.8 million pounds, boosted by record prices of HK$129.5 million for a pair of Qianlong crane censers and HK$180 million for a pink diamond.

Auction Centers

New York was Christie’s biggest auction center with the equivalent of 1.2 billion pounds of sales, followed by London with 829.2 million pounds. The U.K. total was dented by a 17 percent decline in auction sales of Old Masters, a category that has so far failed to attract an influx of new buyers.

Purchases by debut buyers represented 11 percent of total sales. The U.S. and the U.K. provided 40 percent of new registrations, with 7 percent from Hong Kong and China.

Christie’s is a private company owned by the French billionaire Francois Pinault. The auction house was bought by Pinault’s holding company, Artemis SA, for $1.2 billion in May, 1998. It doesn’t report revenue or profit, though it gives sale totals twice a year.

Christie’s said its policy, in line with U.K. accounting standards, is to convert non-U.K. results, using an average exchange rate, weighted daily by sales throughout the year. This would make the 2010 total of 3.3 billion pounds equate to $5 billion.

Sotheby’s said that it will release its consolidated total of private and auction sales for 2010 at the end of February or the beginning of March. Its salesrooms raised $4.3 billion in 2010. In 2007, Sotheby’s consolidated sales totaled $6.2 billion, a record for the New York-based company.

(Scott Reyburn writes about the art market for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

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