Inflation Is Rising But You Wouldn't Know It According To Most Auction Houses
New York - It's probably not that much of a surprise to many of the industry's heavy-hitters, but for those working in the day-to-day milieu of the more pedestrian aspect of the decorative arts world (the rest of us), the news of just how far and high some of last year's auction sales figures have risen, is likely to be nothing short of stunning - especially when one considers the overall state of the antique and decorative arts market just a few short years ago.
For top auction house players like Sotheby's and Christie's, the numbers were impressive. Christie's tallied up $7.2 billion in auctions, and recorded another $1.2 billion in private sales, easily outperforming its sales figures of $7.1 billion it made in 2021. Of that total, just under a billion was derived from the sale of antiques and collectibles. "In 2022, despite a challenging macro-environment, Christie's has achieved our highest ever global sales," chief executive officer Guillaume Cerutti said, referring to post-pandemic economic challenges brought about by inflation and the global strife in eastern Europe. According to Christie's, buyers from North and South America accounted for the lion's share of total sales, with Asian buyers on the decline. However, what was most startling to some was the fact that the auction house said its banner year was fueled not by its trusted client-based list, but by a "new generation of collectors" - thirty-five percent who were first-time clients, and who also happened to qualify as millennials.
Pete Benning, an auction-watch analyst, who tracks more mainstream sales results for some of the larger auction houses, says that it's not just the big-players who are witnessing the entry into today's market by millennials. "It's everywhere," says Benning. "Younger collectors are really starting to take over the mantle left by boomers and are driving up prices across the board." According to Benning, aggregated sales results from almost all the major online auction sites (and smaller ones too), have shown steep increases in overall sales figures over the past year. "It's been a banner year for just about everyone," he said. Benning's research also indicated that while major art sales led the way to soaring profits, sales of high-end antiques and collectibles weren't far behind.
Not to be outdone, Sotheby's also posted some chart-topping numbers with an estimated haul of just over $8 billion in combined art, land, and decorative art sales, with a substantial increase in tallies related to the sale of rare antique and vintage collector cars. While some of Sotheby's numbers were down in a few sectors, others rose, especially it's online auction sales of antiques and collectibles, which continued to post double-digit market gains. As with Christie's, the new younger collector has now also become a staple at Sotheby's, with most of its expanding client base over the last year coming from younger buyers in Asia.
Bonham's auction house, though not as large as either Christie's or Sotheby's, took several steps this year towards changing that scenario through its acquisition of both New England-based Skinner and Copenhagen’s Bruun Rasmussen within a two-week period. The auction house buyouts are part of Bonham's broader strategy to expand its online presence and to re-connect to European markets after Brexit. Many who work within the company say the auction house has also seen strong sales results over the past twelve-months, especially in areas related to Chinese antiques, which is helping to propel its international growth strategy forward.
However, it's not just larger global auction properties that are experiencing the jump in sales numbers, even smaller niche auction houses seem to be getting in on the record setting prices. Richmond Auctions out of Greenville, South Carolina, recently set a new world record this past September for the most expensive antique advertising sign sold at auction - a forty-eight inch double-sided porcelain Musgo Gasoline sign. The selling price of $1.5 million (including buyer's premium) shattered the previous record of $400,000, and proved to be the most profitable sale ever for the fledging auction house that had its first sale in 2020. Heritage Auctions out of Dallas, Texas, also hit new highs with its sale celebrating Abraham Lincoln’s 213th birthday. The two-day event drew a large crowd and brought in $4.3 million while setting a new world record for Americana sales at the auction house.
For Pete Benning, results like this are simply further proof of just how far the antique and decorative arts markets have come over the past few years. Benning says that while online auction sales steadily up-ticked throughout Covids heyday, it wasn't until after the pandemic "officially" ended that the numbers for realized auction prices really started to escalate. "People were buying at online auctions during Covid, no question," says Benning, "but once everything dropped and we went back to normal, they exploded - not just at the larger auction houses - but on the smaller selling platforms too." Benning says he doesn't see much changing in the near future despite inflationary pressures and interest rate hikes, and says that if anything can curb the prodigious spending currently occurring at these auctions, he hasn't seen it yet.
- AIA Staff Writers
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