Despite a Big Dip in Private Sales, Christie’s Posts Positive First-Half Results for 2017

The company announced global auction sales of £2.2 billion, up 29% from last year’s total.

Christie's postwar and contemporary art evening sale, held in New York in May. Photo: Courtesy of Christie's.

Christie’s London may be a miserable place to work at the moment as droves of staff prepare to leave their offices ahead of the closure of its South Kensington branch. But the auction house can still preen its feathers with the announcement that it has retained market share from its rival during the first six months of 2017.

This morning, the company announced global auction sales of £2.2 billion, up 29% from last year’s total. The total in dollars—$2.8 billion—is up only 14%, because the dollar has been a more stable currency over the period than the pound, which fell dramatically in June 2016. By comparison, Sotheby’s auction sales for the first six months of 2017 were $2.41 billion, down 2% on last year in dollars.

Despite Christie’s strong auction results, the house’s overall sales—which include online-only sales as well as £122.2 million in private sales—reached a more measured £2.35 billion (up 14% from last year). In dollars, the combined sales totaled $3 billion—up just 1% from last year’s sum. That’s a figure that might surprise many, considering how sharply the auction market seemed to have risen since last year’s downturn.

Constantin Brancusi, La muse endormie (1913). Courtesy Christie's Images Ltd.

Christie’s top lot of the year to date: Constantin Brancusi’s La muse endormie (1913), which sold for $57.4 million in May. Image: Courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd.

The overall rise in public auction sales was led by the Americas, where sales increased 58% in sterling (to £1.15 billion) or 39% in dollars (to $1.46 billion). But these gains were tempered by a 66.5% decline in private sales, from the $463.9 million (£322.1 million) reported by Christie’s in the first half of last year, to $155.4 million (£122.2 million) in the first half of this year. Another blow was felt in Asia, where auction sales were down 15% in dollars to $314.3 million.

That blip, however, is balanced out by Christie’s otherwise successful drive to encourage Asian buying globally, which increased by 39%. The house attributed much of its success to a 90% increase in Asian buying of Asian art, stimulated by the record Asian art sales held in New York in March.

No data on Asian buying of Western art was included in the report, though we know that 20% of buyers in London’s Impressionist and Modern art sales this summer and in March were from Asia. In fact, Asian clients accounted for the same proportion of spending in 2017 sales as Americans did: 35% each.

A chart of the geographic breakdown of Christie’s client spending in the first half of 2017. Courtesy of Christie’s.

The return of £10 million-plus lots also contributed to Christie’s success. The number of these pricy works offered by the house nearly trebled during this period, from 14 to 38.

Online-only sales are reported as “stable” at £19.8 million ($25.2 million), though there appears to be some confusion: Average prices for sales online are said to have increased to $7,222, but last year’s report quoted the average value per lot online as $8,251. Is Christie’s telling us there is a difference between price and value? (The house later clarified that average online sales price for the first half of 2016 including wine was $6,224; the figure announced last year did not include wine.)

These reports also frequently trumpet the number of “new buyers”; Christie’s notes that 25% of buyers were new to the house. These clients are unafraid to open their wallets: They spent 42% more than the new buyers in 2016, according to the report. The most popular categories for new buyers were luxury items (jewelry, watches, wine, and handbags); Impressionist and Modern art; and the decorative arts. (Contemporary art seemed a notable absence.)

Ironically, the report acknowledges that South Kensington—the soon-to-close sales branch that has primarily handled lower-value sales—is an important component of the business. Since 2014, the report says, 62% of buyers there also bought from other Christie’s locations, including its main London salesroom on King Street.

Market-watchers will get a fuller picture of how the market share has been divided up next month, when Sotheby’s releases its consolidated sales figures.

Update, August 3: This article has been updated to reflect new figures provided by Sotheby’s. Previously, Sotheby’s reported that its aggregate auction sales for the first six months of 2017 were $2.54 billion, up 8% on last year in dollars. That figure had not yet been audited; the total has since been reduced to $2.41 billion.


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