Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Phillips: a look at their relative markets


We take a look at the geography of the three biggest Western art auction companies

The year 2021 ended with exceptional, and – it has to be said – quite unexpected results on the global art auction market. The main international auction houses have in fact demonstrated tremendous agility along with a surprising capacity for innovation in adapting to the pandemic-related constraints, in restoring confidence to both sellers and buyers, and of course by welcoming the advent of the online marketplace and NFTs.

An ultra-rapid recovery

The year’s performances have effectively offset the heavy losses of the year 2020. Sotheby’s total Fine Art sales were down 29% in 2020 compared with 2019, with a shortfall of $1 billion. At Christie’s the contraction was even sharper: down 41%, with a shortfall of $1.5 billion.

In 2021, the figures rose sharply. The two leading companies together accounted for $8.4 billion in art auction turnover, half of the sector’s total global turnover. True, their share was even higher in 2020 (60%), having withstood the crisis better than many other sales companies. But the 2021 recovery concerned the vast majority of operators – including Poly Auction, China Guardian, Phillips and a number of European auction houses – so that the relative performance of Christie’s and Sotheby’s in 2021 was “only” 50% of the global total.

Top 5 auction houses by turnover 2021

Sotheby’s (26%) > 4.4 billion

Christie’s (24%) > 4 billion

Poly Auction (5%) > $824 million

China Guardian (4%) > $678 million

Phillips (3%) > $530 million


Market structure

New York is art market’s primary geographical hub and epicenter of the most prestigious Western sales, and it is where Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips all generate more than half of their annual art auction turnover. Christie’s and Sotheby’s both hammer 56% of their business through their New York outlets (respectively $2.26 billion and $2.4 billion) while Phillips generates 54% of its business there ($380 million).

Each of the three companies has seen its New York turnover rise sharply since 2019 (before the pandemic), but Sotheby’s progression has been by far the most impressive rising from $1.79 billion to $2.46 billion, an increase of 37% over the past two years. Although the number of lots sold remained stable (a little over 6,000), the growing number of active bidders and the quality of the works on offer has clearly stimulated demand and contributed to this exceptional result.

London, the second stronghold in the Western market, accounts for 21% of Christie’s global turnover and 18% of Sotheby’s, while Paris is contributing a steadily increasing share with 6% for Christie’s and 7% for Sotheby’s. For both companies, the Parisian market is growing strongly, with their annual results up around 30% in two years.


Hong Kong, an ultra-dynamic sales channel

The other market place asserting itself more and more boldly on the global stage is of course Hong Kong, to the point of competing with London. The market there is literally booming with foreign operators posting very strong results and unsold rates lower than anywhere else (when they are not zero) driven by highly motivated bidders. Numerous records have been hammered in Hong Kong for a number of Western artists including the American Richard Prince. The island now competes with the best Western market places for the sale of works by young Western prodigies at the highest prices. In 2021 that the Swiss artists, Nicolas Party, the Pakistani, Salman Toor, the Ghanaian, Amoako Boafo, the Nigerian, Toyin Ojih Odutola, the Americans, Avery Singer, Loie Hollowell, Emily Mae Smith (amongst others) all hammered new auction records in Hong Kong.

Turnover growth in Hong Kong (2019-2021)

Christie’s Hong Kong > +92%

Sotheby’s Hong Kong > +23%

Phillips Hong Kong > +178%

For Christie’s and Sotheby’s, the Hong Kong business has become as strategic as the London business: Hong Kong accounts for 17% of Christie’s global art auction turnover and 18% of Sotheby’s turnover, and it now accounts for a quarter of Phillips’ art business.

Phillips – now collaborating with the Chinese company Poly International to optimize its sales – has tripled its business volume there in two years. Henceforward its Hong Kong sales generate more than those organized in London!