Boosted by Private Sales and NFTs, Christie’s Brought in a Total of $7.1 Billion in 2021—Its Best Results in Five Years

Christie's came in second behind Sotheby's in overall results, but private sales surged.

Auctioneer Gemma Sudlow helms the 21st-century evening sale at Christie's New York on November 9. Photo: Katya Kazakina.

As end-of-year results roll in for more and more art businesses, it’s clear that the surge in global wealth is having a major impact on the demand for blue-chip art and luxury goods. And of course, no recap of 2021 would be complete without discussion of digital art and NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, the latter of which has taken off with considerable force this year.

This morning, Christie’s reported its 2021 sales at $7.1 billion, calling it the highest total in the last five years. This included projected private sales of $1.7 billion, which the house also said was a record high.  Private sales saw an increase of 12 percent over 2020, and 108 percent over 2019, with four individual sales bring in more than $50 million each. The auction house, which sold the first major and arguably market-verifying NFT—Beeple’s $69 million Everydays: The First 5000 Days this past March—also said it took in $150 million from sales of the digital art form this year.

Beeple, Everydays – The First 5000 Days. Courtesy of the artist and Christie's.

Beeple, Everydays – The First 5000 Days. Courtesy of the artist and Christie’s.

Calling the results “exceptional,” Christie’s CEO Guillaume Cerutti said the house “made a breakthrough  in new sales formats and categories, NFTs in particular.” Cerutti, along with numerous other Christie’s executives, hosted an in-depth Zoom call with media this morning to discuss the results and field questions. In a statement, Cerutti said the new sale formats “have allowed us to showcase works by new, emerging and under-represented artists, and to reach out to a new audience of younger clients.”

Further, he noted serious progress in other recent initiatives including investments in Asia, and commitments to becoming carbon net zero by 2030.

Meanwhile, auction sales totaled $5.4 billion, up significantly from last year’s reported total of $4.4 billion. (That result was a 25 percent drop from 2019, attributed chiefly to the decrease in live auctions and a shutdown-induced shock of supply). Christie’s also cited an historic sell-through rate at auction of 87 percent, which it said “demonstrates depth of demand and performance.”

Christie’s is still a notch behind its main competitor Sotheby’s, however, which reported its totals for 2021 to date at $7.3 billion last week, also a record for the house. This marked the second consecutive year in which Sotheby’s overall total edged it out. But Christie’s private sales results outpaced the $1.3 billion that Sotheby’s reported in this category last week.

After a rocky year in 2020, all of the major auction houses skillfully pivoted in 2021 to embrace hybrid models for their sales that are heavy on technology and online bidding. They have disrupted the traditional seasonal schedule but also allowed for flexibility by holding major sales that are not tied to strict calendar dates. That trend is expected to continue moving forward.

Pablo Picasso, Femme assise près d'une fenêtre (Marie-Thérèse) (1932). Image courtesy Christie's

Pablo Picasso, Femme assise près d’une fenêtre (Marie-Thérèse) (1932). Image courtesy Christie’s

Among its biggest bragging rights, Christie’s could claim the two most expensive works of art sold at auction this year: Picasso’s Femme assise près d’une fenêtre (Marie-Thérèse) (1932), for $103.4 million, and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s In This Case (1983), for $93.1 million, both in May.

Another highlight of the year was the auction house’s November sale of Impressionist works  amassed by the late Texas oil magnate Edwin Cox. The sale pulled in a total of $332 million with premium, surpassing the $267.6 million high estimate. According to Christie’s, just over half the works went to collectors based in the Americas, 35 percent went to Europe, and 13 percent went to Asia. 

At that event, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles acquired one of one of the star lots, Gustave Caillebotte’s Jeune homme à sa fenêtre (1876), a rare and imposing painting of the artist’s brother gazing out a window from the family’s residence in Paris. Expected to bring in more than $50 million, it sold for $53 million including buyer’s premium, shattering the artist’s existing auction record of $22 million.

Beeple, HUMAN ONE (2021). Courtesy of Christie's.

Beeple, HUMAN ONE(2021). Courtesy of Christie’s.

And as for those omnipresent NFTs, Christie’s said sales of the digital art form made up eight percent of its contemporary art total for the year and attracted younger buyers, 74 percent of whom were new to Christie’s. Beeple’s Everydays – The First 5000 Days accounted for a major portion of that $150 million total, and the artist’s HUMAN ONE hybrid NFT sculpture achieved just under $30 million in November ($28,985,000). Other NFT sale highlights included Larva Labs’ Cryptopunks, which brought in $17 million, and a digital artwork by FEWOCiOUS, which made $2.16 million.

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