Christie’s results for first half of 2021 show marked shift towards Asia, online and private sales—and female auctioneers

Auction sales, according to the analysts ArtTactic, are up 230% to a total of $5.9bn so far this year at the three major auction houses, Christie's, Sotheby's and Phillips

Elaine Kwok on the rostrum in Hong Kong in May Courtesy of Christie's

Elaine Kwok on the rostrum in Hong Kong in May Courtesy of Christie's

Showing some recovery from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the auction market, Christie's sales totalled $3.5bn (£2.5bn) in the first half of 2021, the company's second highest results in the past six years. The results represent a 13% in turnover on the same period in pre-pandemic 2019.

There is a global shift in buyers too: Asian clients accounted for 39% ($1bn) of the value sold at Christie's, followed by EMEA (33%) and the Americas (28% ), and 87% of lots offered were sold by the auction house.

As a privately owned firm, Christie's is not required to announce its profit margins.

For the whole of last year, Christie's reported total global sales of $4.4bn, compared to over $5bn at Sotheby's.

While Sotheby's has not yet released its half-year results for 2021, the analysts ArtTactic's recent auction review puts its total auction sales (not including private sales) at $2.8bn (2020: $1.2bn), just ahead of Christie's auction sales (again, not including private sales) at $2.6bn (2020: $481m). Phillips's total auction sales so far for 2021 amount to $425m (2020: $100m), according to ArtTactic.

So, all three auction houses have had far healthier results so far this year than in the first part of 2020 when the initial impact of the Covid-19 pandemic decimated sales. According to the ArtTactic report: "Global auction sales from Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips ended up at $5.9bn in first half of 2021, up from $1.79bn (+230%) in first half 2020 and $5.7bn in 2019. This rise in sales puts the premium end of the auction market back in line with pre-pandemic sales levels, and signals a renewed interest in art and collectibles."

Predictably, online sales have grown hugely, up 178% on the same period last year to £158.8m ($222.7m), with an average lot value of $27,000—double that of 2020, and six times the average value in 2015.

Picasso's Femme assise près d’une fenêtre (Marie-Thérèse), the most expensive lot sold at auction so far this year Courtesy of Christie's

Sales behind closed doors are booming

Private sales are also booming. On a press call yesterday, Christie's chief executive Guillaume Cerutti said: "Private sales are stronger than ever. They represent 25% of all sales in value at Christie's in first half of 2021...It's double the value and proportion of 2019." He put the value of these private deals at "north of $850m" for the year so far, up 238% from 2019 and 41% on 2020, with particular growth in jewellery and Old Masters. Cerutti added: "Our business model with regards to private sales has evolved—we now have private sales pop-up exhibitions in the Hamptons, Monte Carlo and Aspen."

But he was quick to stress that the strength of private sales is not at the expense of Christie's core business of auctions: "We all know that usually private sales are stronger when auctions are a little bit challenging—it's a sort of contrast cyclical activity to auction. But in 2021 we had both strong results at auction, both live and online, and in private sales—I think it's worth noticing."

Willem-Joost de Gier, the founding director of the art advisers Cadell, a major consignor so far this year, sounds a note of caution: “Private sales have been an excellent option for our clients in this market however downside risks, which are often under estimated, have to be carefully considered and managed.”

Top five works sold this year

Christie's sold seven of the 12 most expensive lots at auction so far this year. Topping the list were Picasso’s Femme assise près d’une fenêtre sold for $92m ($103.4m with fees) in New York in May and Basquiat’s In This Case for $81m ($93m with fees), also in New York in May.

Sotheby's came in at number three and four, with Sandro Botticelli’s Young man holding a roundel (around 1470-80) hammered at a record $80m ($92.1m plus fees) in New York in January followed by Monet’s Le Bassin aux nymphéas (1917-19) sold for $70.4m (with fees) in New York in May.

Number five, back to Christie's, was that famous Beeple NFT, Everyday: The First 5000 Days (2021), sold for an astonishing $60.25m ($69.3m with fees) online in March. Alex Rotter, Christie's chairman of post-war and contemporary art said: "Looking ahead we will continue exploring new applications of NFTs both with established artists and discover new ones that are fit for our core audience."

New clients have made up 30% of all buyers so far this year, and 31% of these new buyers are millennials—Asian clients and those interested in NFTs have been crucial to injecting some youth into the Christie's buyer profile.

One of those new, younger clients was buyer of the Beeple NFT, Vignesh Sundaresan, also known as MetaKovan. Sundaresan is South Asian and based in Singapore, so this purchase helped boost the importance of Asian buyers overall—clients from the region accounted for 39% ($1bn) of sales by value.

And finally, the rostrum, particularly in evening sales, has traditionally been a very male preserve but Christie's has made a particular effort to achieve rostrum parity. According to a statement, auctioneers are now 50/50 male/female, compared to 66/34 male/female six years ago, "with a new generation of auctioneers [such as Georgina Hilton and Gemma Sudlow] on stage in Christie’s marquee evening sales."