Sotheby's, Christies Post Record Annual Sales, Defy Weak Economy

Auction houses rebound from pandemic-era woes

Art handlers hanging a painting of Venice's Grand Canal by the Italian Renaissance painter Canaletto.

Tristan Fewings / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Combined revenue for the auction houses, both founded in the mid-18th century, increased 75% from just two years ago.
  • Christie's benefited from the record-breaking $1.6 billion sale of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen's art collection.
  • Sotheby's reaped $1.1 billion in sales over just five days in May.

Auction houses specializing in the sales of expensive art and collectibles registered record revenue this year, defying a global economic downturn as rebound from pandemic-era shutdowns.

London-based Christie's announced annual sales of $8.4 billion in 2022—$7.2 billion via auctions and an additional $1.2 billion in private sales—the highest in its 256-year history. New York-based rival Sotheby's reported $8 billion in sales this year, also a record for the 278-year-old business.

Both houses had a second year of strong buyer interest after the pandemic hindered auctions in 2020, and both benefited from unprecedented sales of individual collections and featured events.

Christie's, whose sales increased 18% from last year, secured about a fifth of its 2022 revenue with the sale of late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen's extensive art collection. That collection, spanning 500 years of art history, sold for $1.6 billion, making it the largest ever single-owner sale. Five paintings, including works from Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Gaugin, sold for more than $100 million apiece.

The picture at rival Sotheby's is more complicated. The company's revenue rose 10% from a year ago due to its ownership stakes in car auctioneer RM Sotheby's and real estate auctioneer Sotheby's Concierge Auctions. Sales of fine art and luxury items totaled $6.8 billion, about a 7% decrease from last year's $7.3 billion.

Nonetheless, Sotheby's also benefited from the sale of high-profile collections, such as that of New York real estate developer Harry Macklowe and his ex-wife, Linda. Amid their bitter divorce, the New York State Supreme Court in 2018 ordered the auction of the former couple's entire collection. That auction and five others in a series featuring post-1900 art brought Sotheby's $1.1 billion in revenue in just five days in May.

Global auction houses, because of their generally wealthy clientele, often are immune to the vagaries of the global economy. But as the pandemic showed, that's not always the case.

Christie's sales fell to $4.4 billion in 2020, down 24% from the previous year and its lowest since the global financial crisis in 2008. Sotheby's 2020 sales plunged 16% to $5 billion.

The pandemic, though, opened up other business avenues for auction houses. Christie's online sales, for instance, rose 262% in 2020, and interest from first-time buyers and millennials increased. This year, first-time buyers accounted for 35% of Christie's revenue, with millennials accounting for a third of the auction house's sales.

Article Sources
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  1. Barron's. "Record Year for Auction Houses Christie's and Sotheby's."

  2. "Total Sales of Christie's worldwide from 2006 to 2021."

  3. The New York Times. "The Macklowe Collection Tops $922 Million at Auction."

  4. "Sotheby's, Christie's release preliminary 2020 sales reports."

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