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Christie’s reports record half year sales of £2.97bn

Rockefeller auction plus leap in private and online sales drive 26% increase

The auction of Peggy and David Rockefeller’s collection in New York in May contributed £614m to the first half of 2018 © Christie's

Christie’s reports it has netted its highest ever half year sales total (in pounds not dollars), racking up £2.97bn — a 26% increase on last year. The previous high of £2.9bn was in 2015. The auction of Peggy and David Rockefeller’s collection in New York in May contributed £614m to the first half of 2018, more than any single owner sale in history.

Numbers were up across all three selling platforms. Private sales, which dropped by 32% in 2017, saw the biggest increase (up 135% to £287m) followed by online-only auction sales, which grew 40% to £27.7m. Auction sales rose 20% to £2.65bn. Sell-through rates averaged 84% by lot, compared with 81% last year.

Dirk Boll, Christie’s president of Europe, the Middle East, Russia and India (EMERI), says the auction house’s success is a result of its recent restructuring, namely the closure of its South Kensington salesroom last July, as well as a more focused approach to sales. “We developed a direction of travel that the market appreciates. We let go of the overpriced items, were very tight with what we were offering and were realistic with pricing,” he says. “We discovered that people are not afraid of buying entry level and mid-market items from King Street.”

There were pockets of flair in the first half of 2018. London’s March post-war and contemporary art evening sale fetched the highest ever total in Europe (£137.5m). Compare this with the June contemporary auctions, which have this year been downgraded to mid-season-style days sales, notching up £13.5m (including an online component).

The “icing on the cake”, Boll says, was the Rockefeller auction, which not only grossed £614m, but also “opened up dialogues with other collectors in different fields such as the decorative arts”. Around 80% of lots were bought by US collectors, Boll says.

According to Artnet's price database, Christie's sold eight out of the top ten lots at auction this year. The number of lots sold for more than $10m rose from 46 to 55. But supply still dogs the very top of the market. “You cannot have enough [material at the top],” Boll says. “The higher the value of the item, the higher the likelihood that it will reappear on the market. In a sense it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

In terms of private sales, Boll says Christie’s tends to bide its time before deciding which platform to sell on. But the huge spike is a bellwether of the market. As Boll notes: “A growing market brings pieces to open auction while a less bullish market makes people slightly reluctant and increases the private sales.”

Over the past six months, American-based clients accounted for 45% of spend, Asian clients for 24% and EMERI clients for 31%, although these figures are skewed by the Rockefeller sale. “If you disregard Rockefeller we are split pretty evenly, particularly if you look at bidders as well as buyers. Asia is now one third of our clients,” Boll says. In Asia, there was a 24% increase in new buyers from Mainland China.

The question now is whether Christie’s will stick with its biannual contemporary sales in London in March and October, or reintroduce its June evening sale. “We continue to observe what is happening, and that is a question I will be happy to answer after the October season,” Boll says.

Publicly owned Sotheby’s reports its half year results on 6 August.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper, Digital