Flow and Ebb

After peaking in 2015, Sales at Christie’s are down 28 percent; Sotheby’s Off 23 percent

Jussi Pylkkanen global president of Christie, takes bids on Jean-Michel Basguiat's Untitled. 1982 which fetched an artist record $57,285,000 on May 10, 2016 In New York

Jussi Pylkkanen global president of Christie, takes bids on Jean-Michel Basguiat’s Untitled. 1982 which fetched an artist record $57,285,000 on May 10, 2016 In New York

Hurt by drop in high-priced offerings, auction and private sales volume at Christie’s for the first six months of 2016 was down 28 percent from last year. The house made just £2.1 billion ($3 billion) thus far, compared with £2.9 billion ($4.5 billion) for the same period in 2015. Of the total for this year, auction sales accounted for £1.7 billion ($2.5 billion), while private sales brought in £322.1 million ($463.9 million); the corresponding 2015 numbers were £2.6 billion ($4 billion) and £333 million ($515 million). Online auctions for 2016 contributed just £19.4 million ($28 million).

The dip in big-ticket sales is evidenced by the fact that only 29 lots sold for more than E5 million in the first half of 2016, compared with 47 for the same period in 2015. Among 2016’s top lots, the Oppenheimer Blue diamond fetched CHF56,837,000 ($58 million) in May in Geneva, a record for a jewel at auction; Jean-Michel Basquiat’s mural-size painting Untitled, 1982, drew a record $57,285,000 in New York that same month; a large, rare, blue-and-white Chinese Dragon jar from the 15th century sold for $HK158,040,000 ($20.4 million) in Hong Kong, also in May; and Henry Moore’s grand bronze Reclining Figure: Festival, 1951, brought a record £24,722,500 ($33.1 million) in London this June.

It wasn’t just multimillion offerings that saw a falloff. During the first half of 2016, the overall number of lots sold fell 19 percent, to 34,000 from 42,000 for the same period in 2015.

These figures are most similar to those of 2011. That was the first time the house’s half-year sales hit the £2 billion mark, part of the upward trend that peak-ed at 62.9 billion in the first half of 2015. That high-water mark was reached thanks to numbers like the $179,365,000 brought by Picasso’s Les femmes d’Alger (Version “0”), 1955, a record for any work of art at auction, in the curated Looking Forward to the Past evening sale at Christie’s, which took in $705.9 million in May of that year.

“I think there are no surprises,” said Jussi Pylkkanen, the house’s global president and star auctioneer, during a recent telephone interview. “Volumes are down, year on year, and obviously it’s a very significant reduction in just the amount of artworks that are being traded” Pylkkanen puts part of the blame on external forces, such as the steep drop in oil prices at the beginning of 2016, and shaky financial markets. He also cited worries about the Brexit vote. That “little bit of trepidation” he noted, “fed its way through our sales in May and June, and that reticence was really what has brought us softer figures than this time last year.”

On the plus side, he noted that June’s 10 percent drop in the pound sterling versus the dollar and other currencies was beneficial “for a non-U.K. buyer buying in England. The summer season was very good for them.” Pylkkanen was also upbeat about the October opening of the firm’s Beijing facility, observing that Asian acquisition now accounts for almost a third of Christie’s sales volume.

His takeaway: “There’s a massive appetite to buy, and there’s a bigger buyer base than there’s ever been in my 30-year tenure here, yet the pipeline [for property] that we have is not as strong as it was in previous years. Demand is outstripping supply. At the moment, there’s a reticence from clients to offer works of art”

As for rival Sotheby’s, which trades publicly on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker symbol BID, aggregate first-half 2016 auction sales totaled S2.4 billion, 23 percent below the S3.1 billion earned in the same period last year. Among the top earners were a vivid, supremely rare 15.38-carat pink diamond that brought CHF30,826,000 ($31.6 million) in Geneva in May; Picasso’s spectacular Cubist portrait Femme assise, 1909; and Amedeo Modigliani’s beautiful portrait Jeanne Hebuterne (au foulard), 1919, which fetched £43.3 million ($63.6 million) and £38.5 million ($56.6 million), respectively, in the house’s standout June Impressionist and modern evening sale in London; Zhang Dagian’s superb landscape painting Peach Blossom Spring, 1982, which sold for SHK270,680,000 (S34.9 million) in Hong Kong in April; and Cy Twombly’s graffiti-emblazoned painting Untitled (New York City), 1968, which went for $36.7 million in last May’s contemporary evening art sale. At press time, private-sale figures for the house had yet to be released.

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