Auction houses raise commissions as sales soar

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Hundreds of millions of pounds of impressionist, modern, surrealist and contemporary paintings go under the hammer in London next week, and the sales are expected to be more lucrative than ever before for the two giant auction houses.

Both Sotheby's and Christie's have raised their fees to capitalise on the boom in the art market, and will take a larger cut from the biggest lots.

Starting on 6 February, with evening sales where paintings from Renoir, Léger and Schiele are among those likely to fetch more than £3m apiece, Christie's will take 20 per cent on the first £250,000 of the hammer price and 12 per cent on the rest. Currently, Christie's charges 20 per cent on the first £100,000 and 12 per cent on the rest.

It's move follows a similar price rise by arch-rival Sotheby's announced last month, and analysts believe that each house could net an additional £15m to £25m a year from higher commissions.

Both Christie's and Sotheby's are selling about £200m of paintings in London next week, and both report strong interest. Pilar Ordovás, head of contemporary art at Christie's, said she expected another year like 2006, when records were set and toppled within months of each other.

Picasso's Dora Maar with Cat sold for $95.2m last May; Klimt's Portrait of Adele Block-Bauer fetched $135m later in the year, and then a Jackson Pollock changed hands for a record $140m in November.

Christie's sold a record £2.1bn of lots last year, up 36 per cent on 2005. Ms Ordovás said: "The demand is deeper than it has ever been, and there is intense competition between new and old buyers, and given the strength of the worldwide economy we don't see that changing."

Philip Hook, the head of impressionist and modern art at Sotheby's in London, said Russian entrepreneurs and hedge fund millionaires were swelling the ranks of art buyers, while an emerging class of super-rich from the Middle East and the Far East, including China, were also starting to look to Western art.

"The market is strong, rather than mad, and not like the end of the Eighties when prices were speculator-driven," Mr Hook said.

"Buyers today are serious and their purchases are based on art knowledge."

The higher commission fees at the two auction houses are likely to bring in the most significant additional sums from the mid-tier of art sales, rather than from the record-breaking individual paintings.

The two fight over these headline-grabbing lots, and often offer special lower commission deals.

The chief executive of Christie's, Edward Dolman, said the price rises would "ensure that we remain competitive".

The chief executive of Sotheby's, Bill Ruprecht, explained last month: "While this change will only impact a very small percentage of the lots we sell worldwide, it will further strengthen our business and our ability to compete in this challenging marketplace."