Christie's Reports a $1.9 Billion Surge Powered by Contemporary Art and Fine Wine

Christie's Reports a $1.9 Billion Surge Powered by Contemporary Art and Fine Wine

Wine is up. Old Masters are down. Hong Kong is rising. But New York is still number one.

Such are the details about the auction business that can be gleaned from a statement Christie's has released about its 2010 performance, which breaks down the house's record $5.2 billion total sales last year — handily topping the $3.3 billion in business done in 2009 — into illuminating pools of data that describe an art market in furious rebound.

In particular, the volatile contemporary art market burst back last year, logging $961 million, compared to a relatively meek $387 million the previous year. As usual, Impressionist and modern art was Christie's star category, totaling $1.2 billion, a rise of more than 50 percent over the $786 million realized in 2009.

One of the stars of Christie's salesroom was French wine, surging to a total of $73 million in proceeds last year, a 70 percent increase from 2009. As Bloomberg's Scott Reyburn highlighted in his summary of the report, that shows wine to be more important to Christie's bottom line than American paintings or Russian art, making it the seventh biggest category in the house's roster. The demand is driven by mounting hunger for trophy bottles by China's new millionaires, which recently led Bordeaux winemaker Château Mouton Rothschild to tap Chinese artist Xu Lei to design the label for its 2008 vintage.

Perhaps the folks at Christie's Old Masters department should try a wine giveaway: Reyburn also notes that business at Christie's United Kingdom branch "was dented by a 17 percent decline in auction sales of Old Masters, a category that has so far failed to attract an influx of new buyers."

Meanwhile, Christie's Hong Kong branch rode the tide of rising Chinese investment in art, boosting its sales 114 percent, to $743 million. New York, by comparison, was Christie's most important auction room, bringing in a total of $1.9 billion in sales, followed by London with $1.3 billion.

Whether this rebound in the art market is based on a rise in connoisseurship or cheap money and investors looking to make a buck in an unregulated market remains to be seen. But the global surge in the art market continues to attract investors. Yesterday, the Abu Dhabi paper the National reported that the United Arab Emirates' biggest bank is partnering with the Fine Art Fund Group, hoping to lure high-net-worth clients to invest in art. "We're not doing interior decoration," the bank's chief investment officer told the paper. "It's not an aesthetic investment but a financial investment."