Auction Houses: some down, some up!

[21 Jun 2016]


The turnover figures posted by auction houses around the world reflect the art market’s general state of confidence as well as the broader economic and financial conditions in the countries concerned. Thus last year we saw Chinese operators particularly impacted by the country’s financial crisis with a number of its majors posting halved business volumes. While most Western operators posted stable turnover figures, China’s Shanghai Jiahe experienced a more than 70% drop in Fine Art turnover (vs. 2014) with Rombon Auction down 60%, Jingdian Nanjing down 50% and even the mighty Poly International – the world’s fourth most prosperous marketplace for Contemporary art sales in 2011-2012 – suffering a 25% turnover contraction.

Has the slowdown hit the West?

Although the two Western majors, Christie’s and Sotheby’s, posted relatively stable performances last year, a number of Western auctioneers had a difficult 2015: Bukowski’s – pearl of the Scandinavian art market, established in Stockholm since 1870 – posted a 42% turnover contraction while the German and Swiss companies Koller, Lempertz and the Kornfeld Gallery in Bern all posted diminished Fine Art sales (-45%, -25% and -60% respectively).
In 2016, the first half figures are still not showing any signs of recovery with Bukowski’s posting H1 turnover of $9 million versus an annual total of $30 million in 2015 (and $52 million in 2014). Meanwhile Koller has posted just $3.6 million for the first half of 2016 and will have to sell seven times more in the second half of the year to reach last year’s total of $27.7 million and 14 times more to reach its 2014 total! A similar scenario at Lempertz, whose $4 million since the start of 2016 means it needs another $22 million to avoid a further annual contraction (Lempertz totalled $34.3 million in 2014 and $25.6 million in 2015). A number of European operators are therefore struggling to achieve convincing results; not just in Germany, in France too: Artcurial has just posted $15 million in Fine Art turnover for H1 2016 compared with a 2014 total of $82 million.

However, the picture is not completely black with some auction firms doing much better. This is the case for China’s China Guardian, which has already achieved half of last year’s total and Austria’s Dorotheum (the oldest auction house in the world, founded in 1707), whose 2016 Fine Art sales have already reached more than $30 million, chasing a 2015 total of $71 million. The strongest example of market vitality in 2016 has come from South Korea which in 2015 became the world’s 10th largest secondary art marketplace with a turnover total of $75 million, up 77% versus the previous year. Now ahead of the Netherlands, Japan and Belgium, the Korean art market has rocketed, driven by its two operators K-Auction and Seoul Auction (also based in Hong Kong since 2008) and a price surge on Korean artists, particularly those associated with the Dansaekhwa movement. While K-Auction’s turnover now appears to be contracting, its competitor is doing extremely well: in six months, Seoul auction has already reached its annual total of 2014.
So, for the first half of 2016, the global art market is clearly not in an expansive mode, but it hasn’t said its last word… Auction houses worldwide are preparing their prestige summer and autumn sales which could still improve the current trend.