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Art Transfer Market – update

Posted by horasio on July 29, 2009

New figures from Christie’s reveal that the auction house is coping with the recession, thanks to a record-breaking sale of the collection of Yves Saint Laurent in Paris.

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Last week, Christie’s produced some figures for the first six months of this year, providing an opportunity to analyse how the art market has been coping with the recession. The figures show how overall sales have fallen, and, more specifically, how particular regions and categories of sale, from Old Masters to contemporary art, have fared.

Owners have been holding on to their art, either because they could no longer secure lucrative guarantees from the salerooms or were waiting for prices to stabilise, and worldwide sales have dropped by 35 per cent, from £1.8 billion to £1.2 billion. But the fall was by no means uniform. Dubai (down 70 per cent) and the UK (down 62 per cent), were the worst hit regions. British and Irish art sales (including Victorian, Scottish and 20th-century art) shrank more than any other category, by a steep 80 per cent.

The US, which had already begun to recede this time last year, suffered a 51 per cent drop in sales volume. Reflecting the nervousness of the local market, sales of American paintings, in spite of the numerous works on sale from American museum collections, fell by 67 per cent. Close behind was Asia and the Middle East, the fastest growth area last year. Affected by a dramatic decline in the amount of contemporary Chinese art offered, sales there fell by 49 per cent. Contemporary art sales in the West fell by 69 per cent.

The outstanding region was continental Europe. It rose by nearly 400 per cent due to the phenomenal success of the £305 million Yves Saint Laurent sale in Paris in February. Most of this was generated by record-breaking prices for modern classics by Matisse, Brancusi, Mondrian and de Chirico. As a result, Paris emerged as the top-selling venue for Christie’s with more sales (£339 million) than even London or New York, for the first time in 50 years.

A knock-on effect was felt at Christie’s Impressionist and modern art department which, although seeing 70 per cent falls in turnover at its regular London and New York auctions, suffered only a 17 per cent fall worldwide. Another major impact of the sale was on 20th-century decorative arts. This was the second most lucrative element of the St Laurent sale, raising nearly £52 million. Sales of 20th-century decorative arts rose by 233 per cent as a result.

Other sectors to perform better than average were Old Masters, which benefited from a merger with 19th-century European art sales and increased by 13 per cent; European furniture, which held steady after a boom last year and registered a mere 8 per cent decline; and books and manuscripts sales, which fell by just 13 per cent.

A further compensation to the general downturn was that 5 per cent more of the offered works sold than last year. So while Christie’s has been struggling to persuade people to sell high-value art at auction, it has found enough buyers at the right price to achieve a better success rate than it did last year. High-value works may, however, be finding their way through Christie’s private sales division, which took £200 million, and is thought now to be on the rise. Private sales are a discreet way of offering art with high price tags without risking the ignominy of failure at auction.

Sotheby’s is not due to announce its results until next Tuesday. Comparisons will be complicated by the fact that while Christie’s has made its calculations in sterling, which minimises the downturn because of changes in the exchange rate, Sotheby’s will do so in dollars. A preliminary inspection of Sotheby’s website indicates that, with the exception of Paris, similar falls have taken place globally and that there has been an average downturn of 67 per cent in sales from $3 billion (£1.5 billion) last year, to just under $1 billion this year. The percentage drop will be trimmed, possibly to 60 per cent, by the addition of sales made after auctions, and by private sales which are not detailed on its website.

When calculated in dollars, Christie’s sales downturn increases from 35 per cent to 49 per cent. That will bring the difference between the two big auction houses down to just one man and his art collection: Yves Saint Laurent.

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