Growing demand for contemporary art helped sales climb 10 per cent at Christie's International last year, even as its market shrank in Asia and the Middle East.
The London-based auction house sold £3.9 billion (HK$48.47 billion) of art and collectibles in 2012, setting a pound-sterling record for the company for the third successive year. Public sales of works by post-war and living artists grew by a third to continue as the company's most lucrative category, raising £986.5 million in 2012, Christie's said. All auction sales quoted include fees.
Continuing uncertainty in the financial markets and concerns about tax rises in the United States have encouraged wealthy collectors to spend more money on art. Big-ticket buyers are concentrating on gold-standard contemporary names such as Andy Warhol, Mark Rothko, Francis Bacon and Gerhard Richter.
"It's not non-collectors looking to move cash into art," Steven Murphy, Christie's chief executive, said. "Existing clients are spending more, and many of our new bidders have previously bought from dealers and art fairs. They like the transparency of auctions."
Post-war works captured eight out of 10 of Christie's biggest auction sales in 2012. Rothko's 1961 painting Orange, Red, Yellow became the most expensive contemporary work of art at auction when it sold for US$86.9 million in New York in May.
It was the priciest of 49 works that sold for more than US$10 million at Christie's in 2012. The previous year, 32 works broke the eight-digit barrier.
"The strength of the top end of the market is encouraging people to sell great works," Murphy said.
Sales of more than US$1 million were down to 686 from 719 at Christie's in 2011, reflecting the growing gap in demand for the most desirable "trophies" and the rest.
The Mei Moses World All Art Index, a survey of repeat sales at auctions compiled by www.artasanasset.com , was 3.3 per cent down in 2012, the US-based company said late last month.
"In prior times, success at the high end extended to the middle and lower ends of the market," the database's founder, Michael Moses, said. "If it continues it may mark a significant change in the future performance of the market."
Auctions of Impressionist and modern works - for years the powerhouse category of the market - raised £623.6 million last year for Christie's, an increase of 14 per cent.
Asian art was the company's third-biggest seller at £415.2 million, a drop of a quarter on 2011. Demand for historic Chinese porcelain and jade declined in 2012 as growth in China's economy slowed and the country prepared for a change of leadership.
Christie's auctions of fine wines - another Asian favourite - also suffered, falling 1 per cent to £55.9 million last year.
Christie's racked up auction sales of £1.4 billion and £1.1 billion in New York and London respectively in 2012. Hong Kong, the company's third-biggest centre, contributed a further £440.9 million, a decline of 15 per cent on 2011. The Dubai salesroom raised just £6.7 million, a 42 per cent drop.
Private sales continue to be an expanding area for international auction houses. These raised £631.3 million at Christie's last year, up 26 per cent. These transactions accounted for 16 per cent of business last year.
"In the last couple of years we've increased the number of executives focusing on this activity threefold," Murphy said. "It's profitable to do private sales."
Murphy described 2012 as the "test season" for Christie's online-only auctions. Following the US$9.5-million success of the company's Elizabeth Taylor internet-based sale in December 2011, the company held six online-only auctions in 2012. These raised £2.8 million, with 39 per cent of the buyers new to Christie's. More than 30 such events are planned for this year.
"Though some things work online and some things don't, there's a surge of internet buying at all levels," Murphy said.
The auction house set a record for any work of art sold to an internet bid when US$9.6 million was given for the Edward Hopper painting October on Cape Cod in New York in November.
Christie's is a private firm owned by the French billionaire Francois Pinault. The auction house was bought by Pinault's holding company, Artemis, for US$1.2 billion in May 1998. Christie's does not report revenue or profit, though it gives sale totals twice a year. Christie's said its policy, in line with British accounting standards, is to convert non-British results using an average exchange rate weighted daily by sales throughout the year. This would make the 2012 total of £3.9 billion come to US$6.3 billion. In 2011, it had sales of £3.6 billion.