Published: July 26, 2016
LONDON, NEW YORK and HONG KONG — As sure as late July and August herald the midpoint of summer, major auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s provide a first-half snapshot of trends in the auction trade and art market. Christie’s issued its report on the first six months of 2016 on July 20. Sotheby’s is expected to release its results to investors this month, but in the meantime provided a bullish view of its Asian arm recently.
At Christie’s, the bottom line seems to indicate a continued global demand for works of art, even as consignments, measured by art auction sales, indicate the volumes are down year on year. Is it the steep drop in oil prices as the year began, volatile financial markets or worry over the impact of the Brexit vote? The answer is unclear, although the firm’s Chief Executive Officer Patricia Barbizet averred, “Our total focus is on curating sales to meet collector’s demands while satisfying our sellers by ensuring the highest possible number of bidders on each lot. We continue to bring to our consignors the broadest reach of international buyers, which increase season by season.”
Both firms acknowledge that great collections and exceptional items are the catnip for international buyers, but when marquee material is in short supply other strategies are needed.
While Christie’s is celebrating its 250th anniversary this year, before wheeling out the champagne fountains the firm noted a 27 percent decline in art sales for the first half of 2016.
The auction house announced sales of $3 billion for that period, compared to $4.5 billion for the same period in 2015. The drop in sales volume was attributed by the company to a corresponding drop in the supply of works of art above $25 million, but added that its buyer base remains strong and diverse.
Underlining the paucity of strongly performing art, only 29 lots sold for more than $6.5 million versus 47 lots in same period in 2015.
The firm has adjusted its sales format from general category offerings to specially themed and curated cross-category sales, such as its Defining British Art evening sale in June, which realized $133,203,051. A sale titled Bound to Fail led the New York May evening sales and achieved $78,123,250. Classic Week in New York in April achieved $70,142,751 and saw a 16 percent increase in sell-through rate for the Old Master category.
Christie’s said that demand for masterpieces by top collectors continues, with 88 percent of all works offered above $6.5 million selling globally. An example was Henry Moore’s groundbreaking 1951 Modernist “Reclining Figure: Festival,” which at $33,103,428 fetched the highest price ever for a work by the artist and was one of many world records achieved over the season of sales when it sold in London in June. It also set new auction records for artists Jean-Michel Basquiat and Frida Kahlo.
Favorable trends the company said include the growth in new buyers and in e-commerce. New buyers accounted for 25 percent of all buyers in the first half of 2016. New clients in the Americas increased by 22 percent, with the New York saleroom bringing in 21 percent of new buyers globally. Asia and Europe, the Middle East, Russia and India (EMERI) also accounted for 19 percent and 44 percent of new buyers, respectively. E-commerce sales grew 96 percent in the period from $15.3 million in the same period in 2015 to $28 million in 2016. This growth may be due to the fact that Christie’s is offering more online sales where the average value of any lot (excluding wine) is $8,251.
Sotheby’s first-half results pivoted to the Pacific, with the firm emphasizing its Asia 2016 half-year sales achieving $461.5 million, up 22 percent from the same period last year. The publicly traded company (NYSE:BID) does not release its official first-half figures and full income numbers until August, but in a press release quoted its Asia chief executive officer Kevin Ching as saying, “We are delighted by the exceptional half-year results that reached 22 percent over last year. After more than four decades in Asia, Sotheby’s maintains an unrivalled ability to source the finest and rarest objects from notable collections around the world — a critical element to our success. Longstanding relationships with seasoned collectors worldwide led to a number of important consignments — from the Pilkington collection of Chinese ceramics to Zhang Daqian’s ‘Peach Blossom Spring’ to the Mi Yun Hall collection of classical Chinese paintings — that drove remarkable results across collecting categories.”
Sotheby’s said it sold three works of art for more than $13 million and set 16 world auction records, capped by the masterwork from Zhang Daqian’s later period, “Peach Blossom Spring,” which sparked a 50-minute bidding battle that resulted in the work selling at $34.9 million, the highest price paid for any work of art at Sotheby’s Hong Kong this season. Overall, Chinese works of art turned in a half-year auction total of more than $130 million.
In the firm’s worldwide salesrooms, Asian collectors’ interest in Western art continued in several categories, including Nineteenth Century paintings, Old Master paintings, Impressionist and Modern art, contemporary art and Twentieth Century design. The total number of Asian clients buying Western art at Sotheby’’s grew by 12 percent. Among the top ten lots in Sotheby’s London contemporary evening sale in June, four were sold to Asian buyers, including the top lot — Jenny Saville’s “Shift,” which at went to Shanghai’s Long Museum for a record $9.1 million.
The company is promoting an expected blockbuster event in Hong Kong this October as it offers Bowie/Collector, a three-part sale encompassing some 400 items from the private collection of the late musician David Bowie. The sale will be full of British Twentieth Century heavy-hitters like Frank Auerbach, Damien Hirst, Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland.
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