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Tech-savvy Sotheby's $5bn global sales beat Christie's $4.4bn in 2020

The two rivals have made record online and private sales as pandemic overturns traditional live auction format

with additional reporting by

Specialists bidding in New York during Sotheby's Contemporary evening sale in June © Julian Cassady Photography LTD

Sotheby’s year end revenue has edged ahead of Christie's, reporting total global sales of over $5bn compared to Christie's $4.4bn (£3.4bn). But as both auction houses are now private companies, their profit margins are not known.

Somewhat remarkably for a year ruptured by a global pandemic, Sotheby's total sales are up from $4.8bn in 2019, (though likely still lower than its $5.3bn tally in 2018). Meanwhile, Christie’s turnover is $600m lower than its rival at $4.4bn, 25% lower than last year, which it attributes to a drop in live auction sales. Christie’s chief executive Guillaume Cerutti has described 2020 as “a shock and a catalyst”.

Sotheby's pronounced lead is largely due to its more successful pivot into innovative digital sales formats. Over 400 online auctions (a 30% increase from last year) this year totalled over $570m, around seven times the value for 2019 and an industry high, the auction house claims.

"We had been following developments in Asia closely in January and February, and so were ready to react when lockdowns began to impact our ability to hold live sales in our salerooms across the globe," Sebastian Fahey, Sotheby's managing director, EMEA, says. "Whole sales schedules to be held live had to be moved online almost overnight, a Herculean effort on behalf of our staff, and a huge leap of faith for many of our consignors, whose trust was thankfully justified. The livestreamed format was different—nothing like that existed before."

During the first major live-streamed evening sale to be held entirely online, Sotheby's sold this year's top lot at public auction—Francis Bacon’s Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus (1981), bought for $84.5m (with fees). The underbidder's $73.1m bid was Sotheby’s highest ever offer via remote viewing.

Christie's too reported huge growth in the digital arena. Online-only sales increased 262% from last year, accounting for £243m—a record total for the auction house for the channel.

But while Christie’s recent final year tallies have been buoyed by several lots with mammoth price tags, such as 2018's $450m Salvator Mundi and Jeff Koons’s Rabbit (1986) which last year sold for $91m, this year's top lot—Roy Lichtenstein's Nude with Joyous Painting (1994)— went for $46.24m, around half of Sotheby's most valuable public sale.

Private sales boom plumps up figures

However at the top end, the bigger story is what is occurring behind closed doors, as both auction houses report record private sales during 2020.

Private sales this year at Sotheby’s (so far) total over $1.5bn—including that $90m-plus Giacometti offered via sealed bid which was sold, though the final price was not disclosed. That is over 50% up on 2019, and an all-time record for the industry. To bolster its more discreet dealings, Sotheby’s has now appointed Michael Gumener, formerly director of Gagosian in London and Geneva, as its senior director, international private sales.

Christie’s too reports a boom in private sales, which have climbed 57% from last year to $1.3bn, selling three works for prices above $100m and 12 above $25m. In fact, Christie’s sold more works above $25m via private sales than at auction this year. And although Erin McAndrew, Christie’s international director of corporate communications, terms this a “rare occurrence”, it cements a growing trend in conducting valuable business away from public scrutiny during what Cerutti refers to as an "uncertainty of environment". He believes the future of auctions will be "omnichannel", of online, live and private sales, although he added that a "significant restructuring" of the firm across regions and departments had led to a "sad parting of ways with some colleagues", including long-serving members of staff.

Amoako Boafo's Baba Diop (2019) made his record at Christie's Hong Kong earlier this month Courtesy of Christie's

Asian resilience

Cerutti also says that Christie's is ending 2020 with a "different geography in terms of buyers" as, for the first time, bidding from Asia has exceeded that from the US.

Buying by Asian collectors has proved far more buoyant this year compared to their Western counterparts and Sotheby's has maintained its lead in the region for the fifth year running. Sotheby's Asian sales reached $932m in 2020 (which it claims is an 18% lead over Christie's) thanks to "resilient demand" from Asian collectors, according to Kevin Ching, Sotheby's Asia's chief executive. Top lot was a 700-year-old scroll by Ren Renfa sold for $39.6m (with fees). Proving to be the fastest growing region of online buyers (more than doubling in 2020), of the top 20 lots auctioned by Sotheby’s worldwide, Asian clients bid on ten and bought nine.

And it's not just revered blue-chip trophy names that Asian buyers are after. Younger, Western artists are also being snapped up at a frenzied pace. Christie's global relay race earlier this month saw a slew of millennial artists make their auction records, including Dana Schutz, Salman Toor and Amoako Boafo. Indeed, of the top prices achieved at Christie’s this year for works by living artists under 45, nine out of ten were sold in a Hong Kong saleroom.

Interior view of Christie's Paris headquarters Courtesy of Christie's

They will always have Paris

As post-Brexit trade deal negotiations drag on and increased costs from shipping and red tape threaten London's position as Europe's preeminent art trade capital, both auction houses have announced major expansions in France.

Sotheby's Paris will move its headquarters by 2023 to the site of the recently closed Galerie Bernheim Jeune. Fahey says of the move: "France is increasingly important to us as a business and has been for several years. The acquisition of this building represents the beginning of a new era for us."

Meanwhile, Cerutti says "the company in France has done better than the rest of the group" and Christie's is also expanding its Parisian headquarters on Avenue Matignon, where it will host the 1-54 contemporary African art fair in January.