Furthering the argument that the post-war and contemporary art market might have peaked, Christie’s revealed today (26 January) that sales in that department totalled £1.5 billion in 2015, down 14% on the previous year. “There has been huge growth in the post-war and contemporary market over the past few years; I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some sort of correction,” says Stephen Brooks, Christie’s chief financial officer.
Collectors, it seems, are turning to more tried and tested sectors of the market. In terms of categories, the auction house saw its biggest growth in sales of Impressionist and Modern art, which grew 57% to £1.3 billion compared with the same period for 2014.
This blistering total was stoked by the sale of two paintings. In May, Pablo Picasso’s Women of Algiers (Version O) (1955) became the most expensive work at auction when it sold for $179m in New York. In November, the Chinese collector Liu Yiquan bought Amedeo Modigliani’s Nu Couché (1917-18) for $170.4m, making it the second most expensive work sold at auction.
But beyond the headline grabbing items, the middle market was a major factor in Christie’s £4.8 billion total last year—the second highest result in the house’s 250-year history, down 5% from 2014. “Throughout last year we saw increasingly high sell-through rates in the middle market across categories, including post-war and Impressionist and Modern,” Brooks says. “Christie’s is just as much about a $15m Warhol as a £15,000 chandelier sold in South Kensington.”
Online sales also bolstered Christie’s total, with the number of collectors buying over the internet up 10% last year. As much as 20% of new clients chose to buy online, and of those, 45% were under 45.
In terms of geography, 31% of lots were bought by Americans and 18% by Asians, up from 16% in 2014, according to Brooks. Sales in the EMERI region totalled £1.4 billion, down 18%.
Christie’s biggest losses in 2015 included a 37% reduction in sales of Old Master paintings and 19th-century and Russian art (£154.9m) and a drop of 39% in private sales (£554.9m). The auction house attributed the latter to vendors wanting to sell through the public market. At the end of last year Christie’s quietly closed its premises behind New Bond Street, which were used by the auction house’s private sales arm.
This year, Christie's is shifting its focus to themed auctions starting with 20th Century at Christie's, a series of sales from 29 January to 12 February featuring everything from mobiles by Calder to Picasso's Madoura ceramics. Prices start at around £2,000.
Sotheby’s, which unlike Christie's is publicly traded, will report its 2015 earnings in late February.