LONDON Christie's shrugged off the euro zone crisis and slowing economic growth in 2011 to post record revenues, selling art worth 3.6 billion pounds, or nine percent more than in 2010.
In dollar terms the total of $5.7 billion was not a record but was 14 percent higher than 2010, as wealthy and super-wealthy collectors snapped up rare works as status symbols, objects of desire and alternative investments.
The results were published on Tuesday, a week ahead of a key set of sales in London that will again test the appetite of an increasingly international clientele during tough economic times.
"As we approach the sales over the next fortnight in London, we are optimistic about the market in 2012," said Christie's CEO Steven Murphy.
Auctioneers were hit hard by the financial crisis in the wake of the Lehman Brothers collapse in 2008.
Christie's, the world's largest auctioneer, saw its global art sales drop to 2.1 billion pounds in 2009 from 3.1 billion two years early.
But prices recovered more quickly than many had predicted, spurred in particular by interest from mainland China, and Christie's sales leapt more than 50 percent to 3.3 billion pounds in 2010.
In its 2011 results, the London-based auction house said private sales away from the buzz and publicity of the salerooms jumped 44 percent last year to 502 million pounds.
Its online auction business continued to grow, with Christie's LIVE accounting for 29 percent of all bids, while new clients, seen as a key to future growth, represented 12 percent of the value of global sales.
By category, post-war and contemporary art was the largest with sales of 736 million pounds (up 22 percent) followed by Asian art at 553 million (up 13 percent).
The highest price of the year at Christie's was for Roy Lichtenstein's "I Can See the Whole Room!...and There's Nobody in it!" (1961) on November 8 in New York which fetched $43 million (27 million pounds), an auction record for the artist.
Art experts are divided over the strength of the art market.
In a recent survey, analytical group ArtTactic's confidence indicator for the U.S. and European contemporary art market stood at 51, suggesting a roughly even split between negative and positive sentiment.
The report also said an increasing number of experts saw the contemporary art market as more risky than six months ago, citing the rise of speculative buyers motivated mainly by profit.
(Reporting by Mike Collett-White; Editing by Mike Collett-White)