Super Rich Keep Sotheby’s and Christie’s Afloat

Christie’s and Sotheby’s report booming business thanks to patronage of the super rich, with Ten Richest Clients Responsible For 10% Of Art Auction Revenue

It may appear bizarre that, in the midst of such turbulent economic times, business at auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s is booming. Christie’s, for instance, has announced sales of £3.6bn – up 9% overall on the previous year, and up an incredible 22% on contemporary art sales!

And – while the rest of us are stashing cash under the mattress – this is all thanks to ‘ultra high net worth’ individuals, rich enough to absorb the economic buffeting and remain super-rich. In fact, Sotheby’s and Christie’s 10 highest-spending families may be responsible for as much as 10% of their revenue. Take the Qatari royal family, for example, who are sponsoring the forthcoming Damien Hirst retrospective at Tate Modern: In 2007 they bought Hirst’s Lullaby Spring pill cabinet for almost £9.65m – then the highest price ever paid for a work by a living artist –, and last year they bought the most expensive contemporary lots at both auction houses, paying £24m for a Roy Lichtenstein at Christie’s and £39m for a Clyfford Still at Sotheby’s. And, they have paid even higher prices in private transactions, with it being revealed on Friday for example, that they shelled out an incredible £160m for Paul Cézanne’s The Card Players.

In times like these, such individuals face a problem of what to do with their money, with all the usual ways that money can make money drying up – interest, property, stocks, you name it. Enter Art. A decade ago financial advisers would not have recommended that rich people diversify their portfolios by buying art, but now this is common practice. Granted, buying emergent art is high-risk, speculative investment, but acquiring established masterpieces – a game reserved for the super-rich – is now becoming the low-risk option; the laurels to rest on in hard times. And auction houses are savvy enough to realise this, working hard to establish a common global taste standard, so that cultural differences do not mean different preferences in art. This process is, of course, helped by the international galleries such as Gagosian, Hauser & Wirth and White Cube, peddling the same wares across the world.

And so, during the London sales of contemporary art scheduled for the 14 and 15 February, bidders from four continents are expected to converge on many lots, including a squeegee painting by Gerhard Richter at Sotheby’s (estimated at £2.5m-£3.5m), and a the work ‘Fool’ by Christopher Wool at Christie’s (expected to fetch £2.9m-£3.9m). In fact, both works are likely to sell beyond their estimates.

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