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Auction Sales Hit Record $15 Billion as Young, Wealthy Collectors Enter the Market

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  • The Big Three auction houses hit a record $15 billion in sales this year, as a surge in global wealth and a wave of young, first-time collectors drove sales of everything from Basquiats to Birkin bags.
  • Sotheby's said 44% of its bidders this year were new to the auction house, while half of the buyers at Phillips were new.
  • At Christie's, 35% of all buyers were new, with two-thirds entering through online sales. A third of their new buyers were millennials.

The Big Three auction houses hit a record $15 billion in sales this year, as a surge in global wealth and a wave of young, first-time collectors drove sales of everything from Basquiats to Birkin bags.

Christie's on Monday reported total sales of $7.1 billion for 2021, the highest total in five years. Sotheby's earlier reported total sales of $7.3 billion, its best showing in the company's 277-year history, and Phillips said its sales rose to $1.2 billion this year, also a company record.

"Every single category is outperforming," said Guillaume Cerutti, CEO of Christie's.

The auction records highlight the surge in global wealth during the pandemic, as government stimulus, central bank easing, soaring asset prices and a rebound in consumer demand created a massive wave of liquidity for wealthy buyers. The boom in crypto and online stock trading also spawned a new generation of young, wealthy collectors who started buying everything from art and classic cars to luxury goods, wine, watches and diamonds online.

The most expensive work auctioned this year was Pablo Picasso's giant "Femme assise pres d'une fenetre," which fetched $103.4 million at Christie's. The second highest was Jean-Michel Basquiat's "In This Case," which went for $93.1 million.

Driving all the growth — from fine art masterpieces to collectible sneakers — was a new generation of collectors who had never before been clients of the big auction houses. Sotheby's said 44% of its bidders this year were new to the auction house, while half of the buyers at Phillips were first-timers. At Christie's, 35% of all buyers were new, with two-thirds entering through online sales. A third of their new buyers were millennials.

The rise of nonfungible tokens also added to sales. Christie's launched the NFT auction boom in March with the $69 million sale of Beeple's "Everydays." It racked up total NFT sales of $150 million. Sotheby's reported NFT sales of $100 million; it launched Sotheby's Metaverse, a new marketplace for NFTs, this year.

The luxury category, which includes watches, jewelry, wine, handbags and other fashion items, had some of the biggest surprises with prices and demand. Phillips Watches saw an unprecedented "White Glove" year, meaning 100% of the lots offered at auction sold, for a total of $209.3 million.

Sotheby's and Christie's both reported luxury sales of about $1 billion, as the wealthy bid up prices far beyond the assets' estimates. At Sotheby's, nearly two-thirds of luxury lots sold for more than their estimates. Christie's results were helped by the $8 million sale of Marie Antoinette's bracelets, as well as the $515,000 sale of a Hermes Himalaya Diamond Kelly bag and a 15-carat purple pink diamond that fetched $29 million.

The big auction houses also profited from the continued strength in so-called private sales, where assets are sold directly to buyers without an auction. Christie's private sales hit a record $1.7 billion, while Sotheby's reached $1.3 billion.

Wealthy buyers also came from around the world, especially Asia. Asian buyers accounted for nearly a third of sales at Christie's and 46% of bids and purchases for lots over $5 million at Sotheby's.

"There were more and more collectors and an enormous amount of wealth produced over the past year in Asia," Cerutti said. "Those two factors — the new wealth in Asia, plus the liquidity and the markets and crypto — have helped enormously."

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