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Christie’s Sales Climb 10% Led by Record Rothko Painting

'Orange, Red, Yellow'
``Orange, Red, Yellow'' (1961) by Mark Rothko. The work was on loan to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Pincus and his wife, Gerry, bought it from New York’s Marlborough Gallery. Source: Christie's via Bloomberg

Growing demand for contemporary art helped sales climb 10 percent at Christie’s International in 2012, even as its market contracted in Asia and the Middle East.

The London-based auction house sold 3.9 billion pounds ($6.23 billion) of art and collectibles in 2012, setting a pound-sterling record for the company for the third successive year. Public sales of works by postwar and living artists grew 33 percent to continue as the company’s most lucrative category, raising 986.5 million pounds in 2012, Christie’s said in an e-mailed release today. All auction sales quoted include fees.

Continuing uncertainty in the financial markets and concerns about tax rises in the U.S. have encouraged wealthy collectors to spend more money on art. Big-ticket buyers are concentrating on gold-standard contemporary names such as Andy Warhol, Mark Rothko, Francis Bacon and Gerhard Richter.

“It’s not non-collectors looking to move cash into art,” Steven Murphy, Christie’s chief executive, said in an interview. “Existing clients are spending more, and many of our new bidders have previously bought from dealers and art fairs. They like the transparency of auctions.”

Post-war works captured eight out of 10 of Christie’s biggest auction sales in 2012. Rothko’s 1961 painting “Orange, Red, Yellow” became the most expensive contemporary work of art at auction when it sold for $86.9 million in New York in May.

It was the priciest of 49 works that sold for more than $10 million at Christie’s in 2012. The previous year, 32 works broke the eight-digit barrier.

Top Strength

“The strength of the top end of the market is encouraging people to sell great works,” Murphy said.

Sales of more than $1 million were down to 686 from 719 at Christie’s in 2011, reflecting the growing gap in demand for the most desirable “trophies” and the rest.

The Mei Moses World All Art Index, a survey of repeat sales at auctions compiled by, was 3.3 percent down in 2012, the U.S.-based company said in an e-mail on Dec. 26.

“In prior times, success at the high end extended to the middle and lower ends of the market,” the database’s founder, Michael Moses, said in the e-mail. “If it continues it may mark a significant change in the future performance of the market.”

Auctions of Impressionist and modern works -- for years the powerhouse category of the market -- raised 623.6 million pounds in 2012 for Christie’s, an increase of 14 percent.

Slower China

Asian art was the company’s third-biggest seller at 415.2 million pounds, a drop of 25 percent on 2011. Demand for historic Chinese porcelain and jade declined in 2012 as growth in China’s economy slowed and the country prepared for a change of leadership in November.

Christie’s auctions of fine wines -- another Asian favorite -- also suffered, falling 1 percent to 55.9 million pounds in 2012.

Christie’s racked up auction sales of 1.4 billion pounds and 1.1 billion pounds in New York and London respectively in 2012. Hong Kong, the company’s third-biggest center, contributed a further 440.9 million pounds, a decline of 15 percent on 2011. The Dubai salesroom raised just 6.7 million pounds, a 42 percent drop from a reduced calendar of events.

Private sales continue to be an expanding area for international auction houses. These raised 631.3 million pounds at Christie’s last year, up 26 percent. These transactions accounted for 16 percent of business in 2012.

Private Sales

“In the last couple of years we’ve increased the number of executives focusing on this activity threefold,” Murphy said. “It’s profitable to do private sales.”

Murphy described 2012 as the “test season” for Christie’s online-only auctions. Following the $9.5-million success of the company’s Elizabeth Taylor Internet-based sale in December 2011, the company held six online-only auctions in 2012. These raised 2.8 million pounds with 39 percent of the buyers new to Christie’s. More than 30 such events are planned for 2013.

“Though some things work online and some things don’t, there’s a surge of Internet buying at all levels,” Murphy said.

The auction house set a record for any work of art sold to an Internet bid when $9.6 million was given for the Edward Hopper painting “October on Cape Cod” in New York in November.

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. Christie’s doesn’t report revenue or profit, though it gives sale totals twice a year.

Exchange Rate

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 2012 total of 3.9 billion pounds come to $6.3 billion. In 2011, it had sales of 3.6 billion pounds.

Sotheby’s said that it will release its consolidated total of private and auction sales for 2012 at the end of February. Auctions raised $4.4 billion in 2012, with a further $695 million from private sales in the first three quarters, according to filings on the New York-based company’s website. Sotheby’s raised $5.8 billion in 2011.

Muse highlights include Jason Harper on cars, Rich Jaroslovsky on technology and Lance Esplund on U.S. art.

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