Christies profits trail Sotheby's

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Christies International, which earlier this year toppled Sotheby's from its position as the world's biggest auction house, has still emerged as less profitable than its arch-rival. The London-based group announced yesterday that pre-tax profits to June had soared 20 per cent to pounds 19m, but the group's pounds 12.9m after-tax earnings trailed the pounds 16m recorded by Sotheby's for the first half.

However, Lord Hindlip, chairman, remained optimistic about the outlook. "The second half has started well. Each of our major salerooms has a number of important consignments for the autumn season."

In particular, the group is looking forward to the New York sale on 10 November of the Ganz Collection of modern and contemporary art. Slated to realise over $125m (pounds 79m), Christies reckons it could top the previous record of $135m for an individual collection, set by the Impressionist paintings of John T Dorrance sold by Sotheby's in 1989.

Mr Ganz, who made his money from costume jewellery, built his collection from the 1940s, during the early careers of Picasso and two US artists, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. Peter Blythe, Christies' finance director, said these painters are now highly valued, selling for millions of dollars. "The sale could well beat records", he said.

The latest figures were struck after total auction sales jumped 15 per cent to pounds 557m in the period, compared with a 9 per cent rise to pounds 524m for Sotheby's. The figures were boosted by the New York sale of the collection belonging to John and Frances Loeb, which realised $92.8m, the second- highest total from a single collection. The sale included the highest price ever for a painting by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, "Danseuse assise aux bas roses", which sold for $14.5m. Also sold was Paul Cezanne's "Madame Cezanne au fauteuil jaune" for $23.1m, the second-highest price recorded for that painter.

The biggest single collection realised just pounds 15m in the comparable period of 1996, meaning that sales in the US soared 46 per cent to pounds 300m in the first six months.

In total, Impressionist and Modern sales leapt 68 per cent but despite the strength of the market Mr Blythe said it had still not reached the proportions of the late 1980s. "Back then you had a runaway boom in prices for everything. People were willing to pay millions of dollars for a second- rate Renoir." Buyers were now more discerning. "From time to time you get a price beyond most people's expectation, but it doesn't happen with the same frequency as it did then".

Buyers were very international, he added, but the fastest growing region was Asia-Pacific.

Christies is raising the interim dividend by 17 per cent to 1.4p.