Auction art: no shortage of buyers for Christie’s

Christie’s first-half sales figures suggest that the global pandemic has been inconvenient rather than catastrophic for the auction market.

Christie’s announced £2.5 billion in sales for the first half of 2021, up 13 percent on the first half of 2019 (the last pre-Covid reference point).

Christie’s also reported a mightily impressive overall sell-through of 87 percent; the sell-through rate is usually taken as the prime indicator of demand in the auction market, since it combines the percentage of lots that sold and what percentage of their estimated value the lots achieved. The Christie’s figures suggest that there’s some pent-up demand for cultural property and a lot of cash out there looking to buy it.

Clients in Asia accounted for more than a third of the H1 2021 auction sales, with EMEA accounting for another third – though buyers from other regions are usually present by phone or online wherever the auction happens to be held.

Auction-watchers would have been interested in the droopy results from the two big Old Masters sales early in July. Sotheby’s managed to sell only 28 out of 49 lots, recording a 57 percent sell-through rate. Christie’s’ sale the following evening, the one that had the 7x7cm Leonardo da Vinci sketch of a bear’s head (right), did a bit better; the bear sold for $12.5 million, Bellotto’s View of Verona went for nearly $15 million. But then the estimate for the Bellotto was was $16.9m to $25.4m, and overall the sell-through rate for the evening was 74 percent. Anything less than 80 percent is generally regarded as a bit pallid.

As one commentator concluded, “the Old Masters category seems to be the reverse image of the Contemporary Art market. Demand is concentrated in the top-tier segment, the collectors’ base ageing, long-term value increasingly insecure, and Asian interest practically non-existent …” And of course the pictures are usually a bit glum, difficult to engage with unless you’re just speculating in art.

By contrast, Christie’s Middle Eastern specialists seem to be coming good. That’s certainly true for antiques like the 17th century Safavid Polonaise carpet that sold for just over £2 million in April (slightly more than the top end of its estimate). In the same auction was the picture below, a pretty stunning Qajar group portrait from the early 1800s that apparently shows 24 of the 250 sons supposedly fathered by Persia’s fashion-obsessed Fath ’Ali Shah. It went for £2.3 million against an estimate of up to £1.5 million.

They were among a total of 20 Middle Eastern works of art placed in five Christie’s sales taking place in London, New York and Paris during the first half, and Christie’s also seems to be doing well for sellers of more contemporary work.

Hot sellers were Samia Halaby’s vibrant 1987 oil painting Turn and Grow (top), which sold in July for £60,000 against a top estimate of £30,000; Etel Adnan, whose Allah made €40,000 in Paris (top estimate €24,000); and Rokni Haerizadeh, whose Khosrow and Shirin went for £15,000 in London (estimate £8-12,000).

As Christie’s notes, “this builds momentum for our dedicated Middle Eastern Modern and Contemporary Art [auction]”. That runs online from 20 October to 3 November.


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