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Auction War Time: Sotheby's VS Christie's

  • christies, sothebys, auction war
June 25, 2015
Passionate about art, frequent visitor of exhibitions, Widewalls photography specialist and Editor-in-Chief.

The month of May could now be considered as one of the most incredible in history of art sales, and it also confirmed that, when it comes to contemporary art auctions, it all comes down to two houses. The rivalry between Christie’s and Sotheby’s dates back to the 18th century, when both houses were established in London – Christie’s in 1766 and Sotheby’s in 1744. Today, almost three centuries later, with joined forces they control 42 percent of the world’s art auction market, and the numbers they’re bringing in have never been higher. But, there can only be one ruler and judging by the latest sales, it is Christie’s that’s sitting firmly on the throne.

Christie’s Auction House achieved $1.7 billion an art sales during May 2015

Christie’s and Sotheby’s in Numbers

During its biggest week ever, Christie’s achieved a record in sales of $1.7 billion in just four days, making everyone’s mind boggle with big numbers. On one of those nights, the world got its new most expensive work ever sold at an auction – Pablo Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger, whose $179.4 million contributed to the $706 million worth of art that went through the salesroom. When it comes to Post-War and Contemporary art, there was the infamous evening of May 13th, when the works of Mark Rothko, Andy Warhol and Francis Bacon broke some more records. On the other hand, in the two weeks of their sales, Sotheby’s numbers reached $890 million, that being a little over a half of Christie’s success. In search of a reason for Sotheby’s failing behind Christie’s, the conclusion could be that Christie’s is simply better at doing business.

A Game of Auction Thrones

As Bloomberg reports, last year saw the 9 percent profit fall for Sotheby’s due to increased expenses and has failed to catch up with Christie’s in Asia and online. Aside from this, it goes without saying that, in an extremely competitive seller’s market full of billionaires willing to dig deep into their pockets, both houses bid hard to win them over, so they could subsequently bid for the art offered at their sales. But, greedy as they often are, the collectors manage to play the houses off each other to get the best deal – on many occasions, both Sotheby’s and Christie’s agreed to cover the shortfalls of artworks if they fail to sell at a predicted price, and few times they had to, which caused apparent losses in terms of, of course, millions. But it seems that, in doing so, Christie’s is taking more risks and is having more luck. And by being a public company, Sotheby’s cannot really hide the results, while Christie’s, privately owned by French billionaire François Pinault, can and does.

It will be the interesting to see how the story develops further. Will Sotheby’s manage to catch up with Christie’s? Do they need a change of strategy? Who will offer more money-catching artworks? We can only wait and see, and while we do, we invite you to follow our regular updates from the art markets and sales in our Auction Analysis and Upcoming Auctions sections.

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Images used for illustrative purposes only.