Do I hear a billion? Sotheby's sales surge as art market bucks downturn

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It might seem like everything is crashing down around us in Austerity Britain, but judging by the bumper-billion-pound sales figures disclosed by one London auction house, it appears now is the perfect time to cash in on those artistic masterpieces you've left gathering dust in your attic.

Sotheby's in London's upmarket New Bond Street sold nearly £1bn of fine art in its sales during 2011, according to results filed at Companies House. And with global sales of fine art estimated to have hit £35.8bn last year, it appears Britain is taking a significant chunk.

The biggest sale of the year was Francesco Guardi's Venice, a View of the Rialto Bridge, Looking North, from the Fondamenta del Carbon, which yielded £26.7m. It was later subjected to an export ban by the Culture minister, Ed Vaizey, in order to give potential British buyers the chance to raise enough cash to keep it in the country. Nevertheless, it helped to boost total sales at the London auction house to £931m, up more than £50m on 2010.

One private collection broke several records when it fetched £93.5m last February, including the £23m sale of Francis Bacon's triptych of studies of fellow painter Lucian Freud, and Salvador Dali's £13.5m portrait of French poet Paul Eluard.

Among the other highlights of the year were Austrian artist Egon Schiele's rare cityscape Häuser mit bunter Wäsche, Vorstadt II (Houses with Colourful Laundry, Suburb II), which took £24.7m, and Pablo Picasso's £25.2m La Lecture.

The London auction house's sales were particularly striking given that it faces competition not only from local rivals such as Christie's, but also scores of sister houses overseas. Indeed, two of the group's forthcoming headline lots are to be sold in New York: Edvard Munch's masterpiece The Scream, which could fetch up to $80m (£50.5m), while bids of up to $50m are expected for an Elvis Presley portrait by Andy Warhol.

A Warhol screen print portrait of Brigitte Bardot will be included in a London sale of 300 works formerly owned by the German playboy Gunter Sachs, which is expected to harvest at least another £20m from the buoyant market in May.

Although Sotheby's is the oldest company listed on the New York Stock Exchange, it was founded in London by bookseller Samuel Baker, who held his first auction – the sale of a library – in 1744. The group now operates 90 auction houses in 40 countries, from the US to South Korea, and the increase in auction sales in London was also seen worldwide – up 14.5 per cent to $4.9bn.

"We have now reached the point where the three geographic engines driving our auction business – the Americas, Europe and Asia – are contributing to our success in roughly equal proportions," said president and chief executive Bill Ruprecht.

The success of fine-art sales figures could not prevent a slight fall in revenue and pre-tax profit at the 368-year-old auction house, which were £152.6m and £50.6m respectively.

However, Sotheby's managing director for Europe, Patrick van Maris van Dijk, insisted in his report that the "directors are encouraged by the level of auction sales to date in 2012 and remain encouraged by the strength of the global art market".

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