Auction house bonanza: Going, going, gone through the roof

Times may be hard but in sale rooms the sky is the limit

Faced with constant reminders of job cuts, stock market downturns and the global economic crisis, you could be forgiven for thinking that there wouldn't be much of a market for multimillion-pound auctions at the moment. But if the recent flurry of record sale prices is anything to go by, the market for luxury collectibles is in as rude health as it has ever been.

Last week, five bidders pushed Amedeo Modigliani's painting La Belle Romaine far past its £25m estimate to a staggering £43.3m. That was only slightly higher than the £39.8m obtained in the same week by an Andy Warhol depiction of Elizabeth Taylor.

Also ringing through the Christie's cash register was an enormous Henri Matisse sculpture that sold for for £30.6m – beating the previous record for a Matisse by £1.9m. And later in the week, a Roy Lichtenstein sold for a record £26.7m in a sale of contemporary and postwar works that raised £171.3m in a single night.

Elsewhere, other valuable items have hit similar eye-watering prices. A 300-year-old Chinese vase found during a house clearance was the subject of much press coverage when it sold for £53m to an anonymous bidder at a west London auction. And in Geneva a pink 24.78-carat diamond went under the hammer for £29m.

But it is not just the worlds of art, rare jewels and antiques that have seen headline-grabbing prices recently. An extremely rare bottle of The Macallan scotch whisky, which had been left to age for more than six decades, was sold at auction in New York for £301,000. And this week an imperial-sized (six litre) bottle of Cheval Blanc 1947 broke the record for the price of a single bottle of wine when Christie's sold it for £191,000.

Matthew Paton, of Christie's, said the auction market was buoyant despite the economic downturn. "It's extremely busy at the moment," he added. "There was a much quicker bounce-back than some might have expected. But even in the worst times, demand was still there. What was needed to make the market move again was supply."

It is not just the supply of treasures fuelling the record-breaking auction prices – so has a wave of new buyers from foreign countries. "The market is different today than it was before," Mr Paton added. In 2009 at Christie's alone, the money brought in from Chinese buyers soared by 94 per cent. In the same year, the number of clients from the Middle East registering to buy there went up by 30 per cent.

All this means that there are increasing numbers of wealthy people competing for the same number of rare artefacts. Some experts have also observed that the prices of certain pieces are driven up by patriotic buyers, often Chinese, who are eager to return the art to its home country, so it is easy to see why prices continue to rise. In the past, owning a work of art, a beautiful antique or rare jewels gave the buyer the added value of having something beautiful to own, but increasingly they are being seen as a safe financial investment. And when faced with economic downturn these assets appear more "recession proof" than most.

Gary Krimershmoys, the managing director of the art consultancy Quintessentially Art, said that part of the reason for this was that goods such as art, wine and gems were physical investments, unlike shares in a company.

"A company can always go bankrupt, but a Warhol will not," he expalined. "It might go down in value, but it will never go to zero. It's transportable and will always carry a value." He added that in an era where the threat of inflation hung over other, more traditional investments, tangible investments made more sense.

"Where governments have policies of quantitative easing and where the environment is potentially inflationary, investors are conscious that inflationary pressures eat into other assets," he said. "These pressures don't tend to affect art in the same way."

The billionaire hedge fund manager Steve Cohen might have spent £20.7m on an Andy Warhol picture of a Coca-Cola bottle at Sotheby's in New York this month, but other, more modest buyers are also choosing to put their money in these alternative investments.

Andrew della Casa, the director of the Wine Investment Fund, which pours money into the top 1 per cent of Bordeaux wine, said that people were attracted to invest in things that had come through the recession not only unscathed, but stronger.

"I think that more and more people are looking for low risk and high return. It may sound counter-intuitive, but that is what it has proven to be," he said yesterday. "If you compare the fine wine market against oil or gold or the FTSE 100, it stands up very well."

The majority of sales do not appear to be down to a desperation for money – rather because there is demand for the works. "Last year, I saw a lot of panic and desperate sellers. This year I saw a lot fewer. In general, sellers have been more measured," Mr Krimershmoys said. "How it goes for the future is going to be dependent on overall economic wealth. But art has stood up fairly well and as the world comes back to financial health, art will benefit."