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Art Market Watch

July 22, 2011 

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Will China overtake the U.S. art market once and for all? Christie’s sales data for the first half of the year makes it seem possible. The auction house announced total sales of $3.2 billion for January through June of 2011, a jump of 15 percent over the same period last year. While the increase applies almost across the board, the biggest uptick was in the Asian market. Sales in Asia increased by 48 percent, to a total of $482.5 million. Meanwhile, the Americas total was down by 13 percent, although still the highest overall, at $941.6 million.

Christie’s says the disappointing U.S. numbers are not a sign of a weakening market here, but the natural result of having fewer big collections at auction this year compared to the “blockbuster” showing of 2010.

China remains Christie’s biggest market for wine -- not a big part of the U.S. business -- and Asian art, and Chinese buyers are also being felt in the markets for Old Master paintings. One example given by the firm (despite the fact that it came in London in July, which is the second half of 2011, not the first) was Michelangelo’s A male nude, seen from behind (recto); Studies of male nudes (verso), which sold to an Asian collector for $5.1 million.

In the U.S., Christie’s total is boosted, as usual, by high prices for individual works, like a Roy Lichtenstein drawing ($2 million), a 1961 Mark Rothko, ($33.7 million) and many, many Warhols, including Andy Warhol’s Self-Portrait ($38.4 million).

Postwar and contemporary art continues to be the largest part of the auction market, bringing in $702.6 million, up 52 percent over the first half of 2010. “The contemporary market has returned,” Christie’s new CEO Steven P. Murphy told Bloomberg. “It’s done so for a wide range of names.” The big-ticket evening sale of contemporary art at Christie's New York in May 2011 totaled $301 million, while in 2010 the same sale came it at almost $232 million.

The Impressionist and modern art market continues to shrink, dropping 23 percent from 2010, to $652.7 million. Imp & mod remains, however, the firm’s second largest category. Meanwhile, 20th-century decorative arts made the biggest improvement, leaping 312 percent, to $78 million.

The report also noted a huge 70 percent jump in private art sales. Marion Maneker at Art Market Monitor reminds his readers that Christie’s announced earlier this year that it would begin to focus more on these discreet sales. Clearly, such has been the case: more money has been made on private sales in just the first half of this year than any other year, AMM reports.

The average sell-through rates at Christie’s have remained unchanged since last year at about 79 percent. One exception: lots priced between £500,000 and £1 million, which sell an impressive 90 percent of the time. Christie’s also says that about 19 percent of its buyers bid online.

“The continued demand for art in the first half of this year is a clear indication of the enduring vigor and passion for great works of art throughout the world,” Murphy said in a release. “Christie’s results reflect the firm’s commitment to serve a global audience. As our company continues to evolve to meet the needs of collectors worldwide, we continue to keep art, experience and expertise at the centre of Christie’s activities.”

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