July 17 (Bloomberg) -- Christie’s International’s first-half sales surged 13 percent to a record, boosted by Rothko and Renoir works in public auctions and private transactions.
The London-based company sold 2.2 billion pounds ($3.4 billion) of art and antiques, even as demand at Hong Kong auctions declined by almost a quarter. The figures, based on completed sales including fees, were boosted by an increase of 53 percent in private sales to 413.4 million pounds, its highest half-year total in that category.
“Clients are driving this, the trend will continue,” Steven P. Murphy, chief executive officer, said in an interview. The 246-year-old company's was an art advisory business, rather than just an auction house, he said.
Christie’s auctions of postwar and contemporary works increased 34 percent, it said in an e-mailed release today. It competes with Sotheby’s as billionaires invest in art as an alternative to volatile financial markets.
Renoir’s painting “Baigneuse,” a last-minute withdrawal from a June sale after being estimated at as much as 18 million pounds, was among works sold privately for undisclosed sums. The figures also include high-value works that were guaranteed by third-parties and failed to attract external auction bids.
Rothko’s “Orange, Red, Yellow” was the most expensive work it sold at auction in the first half. The price of $86.9 million in New York on May 8 was the highest for a contemporary work at a public sale.
The Rothko was one of 26 works to sell for more than $10 million, up from 18 in the same period last year. The 340 lots selling for more than $1 million were 36 fewer than in the first half of 2011.
“Great works that are new to the market have no ceiling,” Murphy said. “Pieces that are less fresh need to be priced well.”
Contemporary art kept its position as Christie’s top category, generating 576.1 million pounds at auction. Sales in New York in May and London in June achieved record totals.
Impressionist works, which dominated the market during the 1980s boom, contributed 422.9 million pounds. Asian art was the third most-lucrative area, at 222.5 million pounds, a 32 percent decline.
Christie's May auction of Impressionist and modern works tallied $117.1 million, its smallest sale in that category in the U.S. in 2½ years. High quality late 19th-century and early-20th-century art that's fresh to the market is in short supply, and wealthy new collectors tend to prefer contemporary pieces.
“Our top customers are purchasing in seven different categories of art,” Murphy said in an interview with Bloomberg Television's City Central program. Furniture and decorative objects were most popular among the 19 percent of bidders new to the company.
Slowing growth in China, and a contraction of the market for Chinese ceramics and wines (down by 19 percent), saw auctions in Hong Kong decline 22 percent to 231 million pounds.
Public sales in Dubai were just 3.1 million pounds, less than half the total for the first half of last year.
“There’s a gentle cooling in Asia that reflects what’s happening in the financial markets,” Murphy said. “Collectors in that region are also buying more internationally. There’s a more rational approach in Asia than there was two years ago.”
There was a 31 percent increase in the number of Asian clients registering to bid in New York and London.
A Chinese collector was the lone bidder on a Rembrandt work that fetched 8.4 million pounds on July 3. London was the top auction center with 735.8 million pounds of sales.
Results such as the record 19.1 million pounds paid on Feb. 14 for a Henry Moore bronze by a dealer who represents Russian clients has encouraged collectors to sell in the U.K. capital.
New York raised 657.4 million pounds. The U.S. city, with its sales of Impressionist and contemporary works in November, tends to dominate the second-half figures.
Christie's is a private company owned by the billionaire Francois Pinault. The auction house was bought by Pinault's holding company, Artemis SA, for $1.2 billion in May 1998.
Christie’s doesn’t report profit, though it gives sale totals twice a year. 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 first-half total come to $3.5 billion. In 2011, its first-half sales were 2 billion pounds.
(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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