They pointed to a decline in supply as the main reason behind the reduction in overall totals rather than a serious drop-off in demand.
“There is continued global demand to acquire works of art and Christie’s again leads the art market,” said Patricia Barbizet, Christie’s chief executive officer. “Our focus is on curating sales to meet collectors’ demands while satisfying our sellers by ensuring the highest possible number of bidders on each lot.”
Sourcing fewer stellar consignments was certainly a key factor in the falling totals. The number of lots selling for over £5m fell by more than a third. In the first six months of 2016, 29 lots at Christie’s made over this amount compared to 47 in the first half of 2015.
Comparing the figures is slightly skewed by the fact that the first six months of 2015 represented Christie’s highest ever half-year sales total – that period also included a record for any work of art at auction when Pablo Picasso’s Les Femmes d'Alger (Version 'O') fetched $160m (£108.1) hammer in May 2015.
Nevertheless, supply problems were also witnessed further down the scale. The overall sales volume was down by 29%.
Rivals Sotheby’s will release their half-yearly results next month and their totals are also expected to be well down on 2015 levels.
Confidence is King
Auctioneers are always trying to bolster confidence and Christie’s maintain that their latest results are “underpinned by a strong, diverse global buyer base”. They pointed to growth in the volume of lots sold for under £1m, the entry of new buyers into the market and the continued expansion of their online sales as evidence of the underlying health of the market.
New clients accounted for 25% of all buyers at Christie’s in the first half of 2016 with the largest proportion of new buyers coming from EMERI countries (Europe, Middle East, Russia, India).
Their e-commerce sales rose from £9.9m ($15.3m) in the first six months of 2015 to £19.4m in 2016, meaning Christie’s have now generated $100m of total sales since launching their live bidding platform and, more recently, online-only sales.
“We continue to enhance our digital platform to reach an ever increasing audience and to allow greater, easier access for interaction with the world of art we inhabit,” said Barbizet.
The key auctions at Christie’s in this six-month period included the ‘Defining British Art’ evening sale in June that generated £99.5m and their ‘Bound to Fail’ evening sale in New York in May that totalled $78.1m (£54m).
The second half of the year will see the collection of President and Mrs. Ronald Reagan in New York at Christie’s in September and the collections of art critic Brian Sewell and dealer Leslie Waddington both in London in September and October respectively.
Market fresh collections like this are the life-blood of auction houses, but sourcing such consignments remains the key in challenging times.
The latest London series of Impressionist & Modern art and Contemporary art auctions underlined the current state of art market. These sectors are by far the biggest sales categories by value and, although selling rates generally held up and decent bidding emerged where the auctioneers were able to source the ‘right’ material, sellers were clearly holding back.
The reluctance to consign in part reflects a continued uneasiness as to how the current global economic and political uncertainty might affect the art market. Will tangible assets become more attractive or will confidence fall in the belief that the sector has become over-inflated in recent years?
In numbers – Christie’s results for the first half of 2016
The fall in Christie’s sales for the first half of 2016 – £2.1bn ($3bn) for the first half of 2016 which compared to £2.9bn ($4.5bn) for the same period in 2015.
Christie’s sold 18 fewer lots for over £5m in the first six months of 2016, compared to the equivalent period in 2015 (29 compared to 47 lots).
The fall in Christie’s US sales for the first half of 2016 – £729.8m for the period, down from £1.4bn for the same period in 2015.
The fall in Christie’s sales for the EMERI region (Europe, Middle East, Russia, India) – £736.5m for the period, compared with £835.5m for the same period in 2015.
The fall in Christie’s Hong Kong sales – £256.5m for the period, down from £287.1m for the same period in 2015.
Auction sales totalled £1.7bn for the period, while private sales generated £322.1m.
Purchases by European clients accounted for 39% of all Christie’s sales in this period. Asian buyers accounted for 28% of global sales
New buyers account for 25% of all buyers at Christie’s in the first half of 2016. The geographical split of new buyers was 44% from EMERI countries (Europe, Middle East, Russia, India), 22% from the Americas and 19% from Asia.
Increase in new buyers in price bands £1m - £5m
The growth in number of clients buying through Christie’s online-only sales.
Note: All auction sales figures in this article include premium and do not reflect costs or financing fees.