Art market

Sotheby’s President Michael Ainslie discusses the 1991 figures

Decorative arts no longer the Cinderella



Sotheby’s declared their full-year figures on 19 March which showed an overall profit of $21 million, of which $12.1 derived from their auctioneering activities and the rest from real estate and financial activities. Overall sales were down 55% on last year when profits from autioneering were $139 million. In an interview with The Art Newspaper, President and Chief Executive Officer Michael Ainslie expressed satisfaction with the figures in a year which saw the Gulf War and a world-wide recession. He felt that the market reached its lowest point in the first half of last year and that a number of signs now pointed to returning confidence: a low unsold (bi) rate of 13% (by value) so far this year as compared to 21% for this time last year, together with stronger bidding in sales this year. Sotheby’s will be pinning their hopes on the decorative arts market which is performing well in Europe and the States and accounted for 56% of business last year compared to 38% in 1990. Mr Ainslie dismissed Christie’s strength in Old Master Paintings as a London phenomenon and, when asked to comment on Christie’s Chairman Lord Carrington’s statement that Christie’s were now the largest auction house in Europe with a market share of 48%, said “let him wait till mid 1992. Our profits market share is 63% worldwide”. Asked where the company would be looking for its future clients Mr Ainslie stressed the importance of Europe, particularly Switzerland, Germany and Italy. In addition the recent strong performance of the American stock market was contributing to the resurgence of American buying both in the States and in European sales. He expressed modest optimism about the Impressionist market and felt that some new collectors were emerging. On Sotheby’s activities in Berlin he was candid about the difficulties experienced by this “very interesting experiment” so far but felt that the company could build on the pool of new private (West) German buyers that had emerged from the sales. There are no plans at present for sales in Russia—the situation is simply too unpredictable. Although he stressed that Sotheby’s had ceased their practice of guaranteeing items in January 1989 Mr Ainslie conceded that the company still owned works of art as a result of this policy. The current values of such items were audited annually but these figures were not made available. On the subject of the Pierre Matisse purchase he noted that less than half the collection had been sold but that Sotheby’s had recouped both the cost and associated taxes already. In Mr Ainslie’s opinion, the acquisition of the collection had protected the market from a “huge onslaught” of works by twenty or so artists and the operation had been done in an “intelligent, systematic way”.