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The revenue comparisons are harder to gauge, as Christie’s, as a private company, do not reveal details of their financial performance.

But Sotheby’s have lost no time in underscoring their competitive recovery in what has proved a record year for them, as chief executive Bill Ruprecht emphasised in his end-of-year statement: “Contributing to these results were Sotheby’s sale of the top lot of the year – $65m (£32.5m) for Rothko’s White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavendar on Rose) on May 15 – and our sale of four out of the five top lots of the year.”

The company attribute much of their revenue increase to higher auction commissions, which rose by $210m, or 38 per cent. Of course, better performance also means higher salaries and bonuses, which went up 49 per cent to $32.2m.

By moving their operations away from the lower end of the market and concentrating on higher yielding collecting areas such as contemporary and modern art, Sotheby’s have been able to cut the volume of lots by 42 per cent – and with it all the attendant administration and costs.

Auction sales have also enjoyed a big rise of 44 per cent, and account for $5.4bn of the overall total.

But it is the private sales, an increasingly important contributor to the bottom line for all big league auction houses, which show the most dramatic rise: 123 per cent up to $730m.

With evermore complex financial deals, such as guarantees, affording new revenue streams, the competition at the top is as fierce as ever. Also contributing to that battle for market share is the burgeoning promise of developing markets: Sotheby's contemporary art sales more than doubled at $1.34bn, Russian art was up by a quarter at $191m and the company finally saw their Paris operation take off, with sales more than doubling to end the year at $164.2m.

By Ivan Macquisten