The main auction houses in the world are Christie's (UK), Sotheby's (UK), Phillips de Pury (USA), Poly International Auction (China), China Guardian (China) and Artcurial (France).
Christie's was founded in 1766 by James Christie (right), Christie's conducted the greatest auctions of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, and today remains a popular showcase for the unique and the beautiful. Christie's offers over 600 sales annually in over 80 categories, including all areas of fine and decorative arts, jewellery, photographs, collectibles, wine, cars and more. Christie’s is the world's leading art business with global auction sales in 2007 that totaled £3.1 billion ($6.3 billion). In June 1998 French businessman François Pinault acquired a 29% stake in Christie's making him the largest shareholder. The deal valued the company at $4.13 billion. It is now a private company.
Sotheyby's was founded in London by a certain Samuel Baker who, on March 11, 1744, held the first-ever sale under his own name : it was only books but by the hundreds. When Baker died in 1778, his estate was divided between his
partner at the time, George Leigh, and his nephew, John Sotheby. For the next 80 years, the Sotheby family dominated the firm and extended its role into such related areas as prints, medals and coins. By the end of the First World War, the firm had so successfully expanded its role in the art market that new premises were required. In 1917, Sotheby's moved from its Wellington Street location to its famous New Bond Street saleroom, which has remained its London base ever since.
Today, the firm has an annual turnover of approximately $5.9 billion (2007) and offices on London's New Bond Street and Manhattan's York Avenue. This powerful position has been achieved through natural growth, acquisitions, most notably the 1964 purchase of the United States' largest auctioneer of fine art, Parke-Bernet. In 2000, Sotheby's became the first international art auction house to hold auctions on the Internet.
Christie's and Sotheby's share 80% of the world auction market in high-value art, and an quasi-absolute monopoly on works selling for over $ 1 million. In 2006, 810 works of Art were auctioned for more than $1 million ; of these, 801 were sold at one or other of the two auction houses.
Phillips, more recently Phillips de Pury, was founded in London in 1796 by a certain Harry Phillips, Christie's former head clerk, and is now the third auction house in the world but lags far behind its two big rivals with sales of less than half a billion dollars. It is now located mainly in New York city but it was recently acquired by a Russian luxury retailer group called Mercury Group. In 2005 and 2006, the company earned a modest under -$10 million but had accumulated an enormous debt in the figure of $30 million.
Beijing's Poly International Auction Co., Ltd. was established on July 1, 2005. It is an auction house invested by Poly Cultural and Art Co. Ltd. With Poly Group’s (technologies) reliable resources and utter support, Beijing Poly Auction was determined to become a top auction house of international standards. And it did in less than 3 years buoyed by the trends on the Fine Art international market. In November of 2005, Poly Auction had its first major auction with artists like Xu Beihong, Wu Changshuo, Lin Fengmian, Li Keran and Wu Guanzhong, all leading artists in Chinese modern art history and their works were all part of this auction.
Moreover, Wu Guanzhong’s “Parrot’s Paradise” was auctioned for 30.25 million RMB (US$ 4.3 million), the artist’s highest auction record. Artist Huang Zhou’s “The Great Harvest” was sold for 15.95 millions RMB (US$ 2.2 million). This first major auction yields a total of 560 millions RMB (US$79.6 million). It established Beijing Poly Auction as one of the top auction houses in mainland China. In 2007, Poly International Auction put its focus on Chinese antiquity as well as Chinese paintings and calligraphy. In addition, through the association with Poly Museum and its connections in the art world, the group is anticipating to break into overseas market. It is currently in the process of acquiring art works and preparing for an international exhibition tour.
Although Poly does not release data about its global sales in the Fine Art market it is becoming a major player as Chinese artists themselves are vying with European and American artists to become the most expensive artists on the art scene of the world. Its share of the international Fine Art market is estimated by Artprice at 1.8% or about US$ 170 million.
The fourth biggest player on the Fine Art market is another chinese, China Guardian, that was established in May of 1993. With main offices in Beijing , and representative offices in Shanghai , Tianjin, Hong Kong and Japan , China Guardian has a physical presence across the whole country. Regular auction business covers Chinese paintings and calligraphy, porcelain, ceramics and works of art, Chinese oil paintings and sculptures, rare books, rubbings and calligraphy, stamps, coins and bronze mirrors, fine jewelry and jadeite, as well as watches and clocks. Artprice estimated its share of the market as 1% or about US $100 million. China Guardian is actively seeking a place on the market and launched a massive campaign of recruitment of experts in the field of Fine Art ; it offers excellent career opportunities for people interested in the arts with experience in the fields of arts and culture in general, including eastern or western arts, as well as those with museum experience, marketing, and customer service knowledge, preferably with language ability in both Chinese and English.
Last but not least are the French people of Artcurial at the famous 7 Rond-Point des Champs-Élysées in Paris. Artprice evaluates the global sales of the French auction house at less than 1% or about 90 million dollars. The company does not publish any data about its activity as very often do the private societies in secretive France. The group is owned by the Aga Khan and has taken a stake in Arqana, the European leader in horse auctions and is bookstore hold more than 18,000 books.
Its board comprises some of the most famous names of the French gotha like the Dassaults, and its staff list shows about 80 people. Artcurial does its best to maintain a presence on the international market and to keep the French market itself from being marginalised or even fossilized, keeping only a presence in the primitive photographies, 19th century paintings and Art Deco segments.
The top Frenchman in the international ranking of contemporary artists by total revenues is Robert Combas at a lowly 75th place. His record sale at $ 95,000 for Le Petit Cheval is 100 times lower thant the records set by Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst.
In an extremely competitive Fine Art market, about 90% of the sales achieved price under $10,000 in 2007.
NB : For a more detailed account of the recent history of Christie's, Sotheyby's and Phillips De Pury please read this interesting story .