Christie’s Sales Rise 9%, Boosted by Record Auction

"Dustheads" (1982) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. It was estimated at $25 million to $35 million and sold for $48.8 million in a New York auction in May 2013. Source: Christie's Images Ltd. 2013 via Bloomberg

Christie’s International’s first-half sales increased 9 percent, boosted by records set for Jackson Pollock and Jean-Michel Basquiat at the most expensive art auction ever held.

The London-based company sold 2.4 billion pounds ($3.6 billion) of art and antiques. Postwar and contemporary was the dominant category, raising 665.4 million pounds, up 16 percent on the equivalent period last year, Christie’s said today in an emailed statement.

“Auctions in the key markets like contemporary have been strong,” Steven P. Murphy, chief executive officer, said in an interview. “Sales in Asia dipped last year, and they’ve come back. That’s also been important.”

Contemporary art has become a fashionable alternative investment for an increasing number of the world’s wealthiest individuals. Christie’s evening sale of postwar and 21st-century works in New York on May 15 took $495 million, a record for any art auction. The event established 12 new saleroom highs for artists, including $58.4 million for Pollock and $48.8 million for Basquiat. Sotheby’s rival offering the previous evening took $294 million.

Christie’s is a private company owned by the billionaire Francois Pinault. It was bought by Pinault’s holding company, Artemis SA, for $1.2 billion in 1998. Christie’s doesn’t report profit, though it gives sale totals twice a year, based on completed public and private transactions including fees.

Guarantee Effect

Dealers questioned the profitability of Christie’s record-breaking sale in New York, which included 12 lots guaranteed by the company or third-parties. To attract high-value works, auction houses sometimes waive their seller’s commission and promise owners a portion of the buyer’s fee.

“Contemporary auctions at the top end are quite profitable,” said Murphy. “That New York sale exceeded its profit expectations.”

Contemporary art sales also attracted a 52 percent increase in new clients bidding for works estimated at less than 100,000 pounds, Christie’s said.

“These people weren’t introduced by us. They were already interested,” Murphy said. “We could serve that group with two or three more day sales.”

Impressionist and modern art was Christie’s next most lucrative category with 409.9 million pounds of sales -- a 3 percent decrease on last year.

Finding Supply

Murphy said there were problems with supply in what was traditionally the most expensive collecting area of the market. “They’re not painting them any more,” he said.

The three most highly valued lots at Christie’s 64.1 million-pound sale of Impressionist works in London on June 18 had been supplied by the Nahmad family of dealers, persons with knowledge of the matter said. These included a Joan Miro painting estimated at a minimum of 5.2 million pounds that failed to sell after being guaranteed by the auction house.

Despite slowing growth in China, Asian art bounced back with sales of 284.5 million pounds, up 28 percent.

A set of four 20th-century hanging scrolls by Zhang Daqian was the most expensive lot at 6.9 million pounds, helping Christie’s Hong Kong increase sales 19 percent to 275.6 million pounds. Slightly less than a quarter of the company’s clients were based in Asia.

China, India

Christie’s said in April that that it had become the first international auction house to be granted a license to hold independent sales in China. The first event, featuring a range of Western material combined with Chinese contemporary art -- though no antiques -- will take place in September.

The company will also become the first international auctioneer to hold sales in India. An inaugural auction of contemporary Indian art will take place in Mumbai in December.

“Everything is about bringing in new clients,” said Murphy.

Christie’s said an average 46 percent of buyers at its online-only auctions were new to the company. It held 11 such sales in the first half, up from seven in the whole of 2012, generating 5.1 million pounds -- just 1.1 percent of the overall total for the period.

Private sales contributed 465.2 million pounds. These discreet transactions are a continuing growth area for auction houses. At Christie’s they were 13 percent up on the equivalent period last year.

Christie’s 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 $3.7 billion. In 2011, its first-half sales were 2.2 billion pounds.

Muse highlights include Martin Gayford on European art and James Russell on architecture.

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