Source: Bloomberg (www.bloomberg.com), by Linda Sandler
London - Christie's International, the world's largest auction house, may be looking at slower growth in sale totals starting with its London auctions in February.
Christie's said its consignments for February 2008, including Kees van Dongen's naked dancer and Gerhard Richter's bikini bather, are "not dramatically bigger'' than this year's. In February 2007, the combined auction totals in London for Christie's and its competitor Sotheby's rose 49 percent. Christie's still expects growth in 2008, though at a slower pace.
"Our estimates for February so far are 10 percent to 15 percent higher than last year, and there's still a week of art gathering left,'' said Christie's Chief Executive Officer Ed Dolman yesterday. "We will see growth next year.''
Some collectors in the biggest auction markets in New York and London have lost money on subprime mortgage investments. JPMorgan Chase & Co. started following Sotheby's shares this month with a "neutral'' rating, saying the company is "operating at near peak sales'' after a surge in art values and sales in the past four years.
Industry auction totals, estimated to rise 36 percent this year, may gain 7.5 percent next year, and Sotheby's profit may drop 2 percent, JPMorgan analyst Steven Rees said in a Dec. 14 report.
"Lingering financial market volatility may continue to impact overall art market psychology,'' he said. Christie's, which is owned by the French billionaire Francois Pinault, doesn't disclose profit.
Dolman, 47, spoke in an interview in his corner office at Christie's on King Street. A soft-voiced man with sandy hair, he has been CEO since 1999, the year after Pinault bought the London- based auction house. Demand for art is being sustained by new billionaires, he said.
"The entrance of 30 to 50 Russians, Asians and Middle Easterners who buy at the $20 million-plus range has made a huge difference,'' Dolman said. "What's comforting is that the wealth of these people is relatively independent of the financial markets.''
For February, Christie's has Richter's painting of lovers on a beach, "Zwei Liebespaare,'' that would set a record for the artist if it reached its $12 million estimate. Yesterday, Christie's said it also would sell $24 million of art by van Dongen, including a naked Paris dancer, Alexej von Jawlensky and British artists from the collection of U.K. office developer and philanthropist Maurice Wohl. Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat also are in the bag.
Guarantees, or promises of minimum prices to sellers, will continue to be a feature of Christie's sales, Dolman said.
"They're absolutely part and parcel of our business,'' he said. "Consignors demand them and we're pleased to give them, because we take a share of the upside if a work sells for more than the guaranteed amount.''
On Dec. 6, old master paintings sold by heirs to the Royal Philips Electronics NV fortune took in about 20 percent less than their low estimate. Christie's, which had to pay the Philips family a promised minimum price, is willing to accept the risk of guarantees because they generally add to the company's profit margin, Dolman said.
"We have no visibility of what something will be worth in six months time -- Will it be worth 10 percent more, or less? We don't know, so the risks are huge. But we make a decision about the price at which we want to back a picture. We find it easier with contemporary art, because the market is much broader, than with old masters. Generally, our portfolio of bets has paid off.''
Guarantees reached 50 percent of the value of some of Christie's November sales, and topped 78 percent at Sotheby's.
Hong Kong Growth
One big change in Christie's business in recent years was the rise of Hong Kong as an art-sales center, overtaking France as the third-largest market.
"Two or three years ago, we were selling $40 million or $50 million of art in Hong Kong. Now, it's $280 million,'' Dolman said.
Christie's French auctions this year will total around 170 million euros ($244.6 million), according to Francois Curiel, Christie's Paris-based European chief. He had more competition this year from Sotheby's, whose French auctions totaled 119 million euros, a 92 percent gain.
Dolman, who runs an auction network in New York, London and Paris headed by Marc Porter, Jussi Pylkkanen and Curiel, said he's optimistic about next year, "but we're watchful.''
Christie's will report 2007 auction totals in the first half of January, said spokesman Toby Usnik.
To contact the reporter on this story: Linda Sandler in London at lsandler[at]bloomberg.net