View from City Road: The art of getting there first

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The Independent Online
CHRISTIES' decision to follow its rival, Sotheby's, in raising buyers' commission rates dovetails neatly with growing signs of life in the art market.

When shares do well - as they have done since devaluation - the art market usually perks up in sympathy. After two years of gloom, when art buyers, particularly the Japanese, with fat wallets have been thin on the ground, there are now hopes that the market has bottomed.

To some extent figures disclosed by Christies yesterday could support this view. Annual sales at the auction house rose by only 2 per cent to just over dollars 1bn last year.

But sales during the August-to-December autumn provide a more interesting perspective. In dollar terms they edged higher by 4 per cent, but sales rose by 17 per cent to pounds 312m in sterling.

Christies' trading is similar to the trends revealed by rivals like Sotheby's and Phillips. All three houses are reporting renewed confidence in the international art market.

For example, Christies' autumn sales of Impressionist and modern pictures - which had suffered badly from the recession, having ridden so high during the art boom of the Eighties - surged ahead by 70 per cent in dollars compared with the admittedly low levels of a year ago.

Among notable works snapped up were a Matisse, which fetched a record dollars 14.5m in New York. This overtook the previous record set by the artist's work in October 1989, when the market was at its peak.

Meanwhile, prices of Old Masters, jewellery and porcelain have remained robust.

Attracted by a cheaper pound, an increasing number of overseas buyers have been bidding up prices in London and there are hopes this will continue into 1993.

Both Christies' and Sotheby's profits are heading for a sharp improvement next year, thanks to their decision to raise buyers' charges from 10 to 15 per cent on the first pounds 30,000 hammer price.

In Christies' case, the impact of the increase could be substantial. It stands to boost profits by about pounds 10m, which makes a full-year pre-tax figure of pounds 20m, compared with just pounds 4.5m this year, within reach in 1993.

Unfortunately the stock market has got there first and the upside potential for the shares, up 11p to 145p, is limited. Both Christies' and Sotheby's shares are already trading on more than 20 times 1993 earnings and are for collectors only.