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Significantly, these are the highest totals achieved by the auction houses since the height of the market in 1990.

Phillips reported a turnover of £140m up to November 1999, when the firm was bought by the privately-owned LVMH group, but this still represents an increase of 16 per cent on total sales for the whole of 1998. Bonhams' increase in total sales was marginal, up to £45.7m in 1999 from £45.6m in 1998.

Sotheby's increase was slightly more than Christie's, up 16 per cent from $1.9bn last year compared with 15 per cent from $1.965bn for Christie's, thus enabling Sotheby's to claw back the slender lead established by their rivals in 1998.

However, the US firm's recent $42.1m investment in the Internet cost them dear in terms of net profit, which dropped by almost 37 per cent to $32.9m last year. Furthermore, the stepping up of the US Justice department investigation into alleged commission fixing, which saw a savage drop in the share price of Sotheby's Inc. in the first months of 2000, was cited by new chief executive William Ruprecht as a reason why shareholders would not be receiving a dividend for the first quarter of this year. Sotheby's have also invested heavily in the expansion of their New York salerooms, as well as new salerooms in Amsterdam and Zurich.

Christie's reported as a privately-owned company and did not reveal their net-profit figures, although it is likely that an increased move towards single owner sales at the top-end of the market will have resulted in a squeeze on margins of revenue.

The equality of overall market share for Sotheby's and Christie's hardly reflected the disparity in the regional performance of the two firms.

Christie's most valuable market continues to lie in Europe, with a 23 per cent sterling increase in total sales to £680m ($1.1bn) – with £430m from King Street in London alone – against Sotheby's increase of 13 per cent to £559m ($904.5m). However, the US firm extended their dominance over their main rival in America last year, recording an 18 per cent rise in total sales to just over $1.264bn against Christie's increase of six per cent to $1.0bn.

The market in Asia, while only accounting for under five per cent of total sales, gave the auction houses their biggest sales percentage increases last year (from a disastrous fall the year before) as the Far Eastern economies showed signs of recovery. Christie's sales in Asia and the Pacific were up 48 per cent to $124m, while Sotheby's saw their sales rise by 46 per cent to $89.8m