Christie’s had a bumper year in 2013, not only its best ever but the best reported by any auction house, ever. The firm’s sales totalled $7.13bn (£4.54bn), an increase of 14 per cent (or 16 per cent in sterling terms) over 2012. Private sales, the sector that both major auction houses are promoting strongly, were $1.19bn: an increase of 19 per cent (20 per cent in sterling).
Christie’s has been aggressively developing its internet presence and held 49 online-only sales in 2013 – a huge jump compared with the seven it held in 2012 and just one in 2011. These were key in attracting new buyers, according to chief executive Steven Murphy. “Overall, 30 per cent of buyers were new to Christie’s last year,” he said, “while 45 per cent of the online buyers were new. Our conviction is that success as an art business is getting the best consignments, and that getting the most buyers will bring in the best consignments.”
Asked about the firm’s increasing emphasis on branding, Murphy said: “We grow our client base by inviting new people in via our branding; an example is that, after our first sale in Shanghai in September, we took 19 Chinese clients to New York to attend our November postwar and impressionist sale.”
This sale saw the highest-ever total for an auction: $691.6m, with a new auction high set for Bacon’s “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” (1969), which made $142.4m.
In China, there has been a rumpus about an ancient calligraphic scroll that sold for $8.2m at Sotheby’s Fine Classical Chinese paintings sale in September. It was estimated at just $300,000, but was carried off by collector Liu Yiqian who, with his wife Wang Wei, has already opened one private museum in Shanghai – the Long or Dragon Museum – and is opening another in March.
The scroll has just nine characters and is inscribed “Su Shi respectfully bids farewell to Gongfu, Gentleman Court Consultant”. Su Shi was a major figure in 11th-century Song China, revered as a statesman, painter, calligrapher and poet.
So far, so good. But three months and a few days after the sale, a trio of Chinese specialists said they believed the work was inauthentic. Curiously, they published this in the Xinmin Evening News and not via the habitual academic channels. According to Sotheby’s conditions of sale, buyers must inform the firm if they are questioning the accuracy of its description – but within three months, and the opinion came just after that period had expired. Adding to the mysterious nature of the dispute is the fact that one of the specialists, Shan Guolin of the Shanghai Museum, is a member of the academic committee of the Long Museum.
Sotheby’s is standing behind its belief that the scroll is genuine and has published a 14-page document refuting the claims that it is a fake. According to a spokesperson for Liu Yiqian, he is still waiting for comments on Sotheby’s report from the three specialists. “I am confused by their action,” he said, but he is still intending to show the work at the March 28 inauguration of the new Long Museum. Backing him is respected specialist Zhu Shaoliang, who took to Weibo (China’s version of Twitter) to say publicly that if Liu ever changed his mind, he would be happy to buy the scroll from him.
Still in China, prominent collector Guan Yi has just made a significant donation to Hong Kong’s M+ museum. “This is the first time a mainland collector has given works to the museum,” says Lars Nittve, M+’s executive director. The donation consists of 37 works, including the complete “Canton Express”, a collective project by Cantonese artists shown at the 2003 Venice Biennale. It adds to the group of more than 1,400 works given by the Swiss collector Uli Sigg to M+ in 2012 in a part-donation, part-purchase deal. “Guan Yi knew the Sigg collection and he was careful to select works to complement those holdings,” says Nittve, noting that a significant factor in the discussions was the nomination of Pi Li as senior curator at M+. Pi Li, former co-founder of the Boers-Li gallery in Beijing, knows Guan Yi well and has advised on his collection. Encouragingly for the Hong Kong museum, which is due to be completed in late 2017, Guan says that this is “just the beginning of my relationship with M+”.
The market for French 18th-century furniture has all but collapsed except for very high-end pieces. Many of the grand Parisian galleries that dealt in this sector have closed. Now Didier Aaron, the firm run by Hervé Aaron, is moving out of its 1,000 sq metre showroom in the Faubourg St Honoré into the smaller former gallery of the late sculpture dealer François Fabius on Boulevard Haussman. There, it will focus on Old Master paintings and drawings. Aaron himself is moving to New York to open a branch of the gallery. His highly knowledgeable furniture specialist Bill Pallot is remaining in collaboration with the company, and will work in the new French space presenting a few, top-end pieces.
Taxation on art varies enormously from country to country. French company A&F Markets has produced a useful guide to the subject (for the moment in French but coming out in English in the next edition) covering 86 countries, from Aruba (in the Caribbean) to Venezuela. Each entry lists import taxes, tax on assets, taxes on resale and any tax breaks on charitable donations plus useful information on EU tax. It is available at afmarkets.net/po/editions/.
London’s Tiwani Contemporary, a small gallery specialising in African art, is showing photographs of barbers’ shops in west Africa taken by the Nigerian Andrew Esiebo. The subjects span everything from a simple stall set up in a Mali street to the sophistication of an all black-and-white interior in Ghana. Esiebo’s images explore cultural identities or focus on the paraphernalia of hairdressing with, for example a still life of combs and scissors taken in Bamako. Prices range from £1,500 to £3,500 (editions of seven or three): the show continues until February 8.
Georgina Adam is art market editor-at-large of The Art Newspaper