LONDON Christie's sold art worth 2.0 billion pounds ($3.2 billion) in the first half of the year, up 15 percent on the same period in 2011, and a leading executive said on Thursday that full-year results should break the 2010 record.
The world's biggest art business, owned by French billionaire Francois Pinault, posted sales of 3.3 billion pounds in 2010, a leap of 53 percent on 2009 when the global financial crisis saw wealthy buyers retreat.
"There is a good chance of breaking that record this year," said Jussi Pylkkanen, president of Christie's Europe.
"Every indicator in the art market tells us that there is the appetite to buy and sell at Christie's. It must give us a very, very good chance," he told Reuters in an interview. He declined to give a more precise forecast.
A leading art analyst warned, however, that growing economic uncertainty, particularly surrounding the European debt crisis, could act as a brake on a market that is approaching record prices in several sectors.
ArtTactic published a U.S. and European contemporary art market survey on Thursday which showed that, despite a rise in confidence of 8.3 percent in the first half of 2011 its barometer of risk had also risen 12.6 percent.
"There are strong similarities between today's situation and the situation that faced the art market in 2007 and 2008," said the survey, recalling the strong divergence then between its art market and economic indicators.
The art market took a delayed, but significant hit from the banking crisis, but has recovered steadily since.
"This time around the problems have moved from the banking to the sovereign sector -- potentially presenting an even bigger threat to the world economy than the previous crisis did," added ArtTactic.
REASONS TO BE BULLISH
Pylkkanen of Christie's said that while the company and its clients would be watching the broader economic climate closely, there were reasons to remain bullish about art, collected both for its aesthetic appeal and investment value.
He pointed to the number of new buyers coming to Christie's, helping to support not only the top end of the market where works regularly fetch tens of millions of dollars each, but also works worth $500,000-1 million.
"It means that those (new) individuals will be in the market for a good time hence," he said.
"If you add on the fact that prices are firm it means collectors with important pieces are very comfortable putting them on the market, which creates a virtuous circle."
Buyers from mainland China, a key target for auction houses who have seen prices in some sectors soar as a result of newly wealthy collectors from the country, were behind the leap in Asian sales, Pylkkanen said.
Asian sales hit 296 million between January and June, up 48 percent year-on-year, while private sales outside the auction room leapt 57 percent to 287 million pounds.
Continental Europe and Britain accounted for auction sales of 803 million pounds, a rise of 24 percent on the first half of 2010, while sales in the Americas fell 13 percent to 578 million pounds.
Pylkkanen said Christie's continued to see the rise of the "Medici"-style "super-collectors" who sought to acquire top works of art across periods and genres.
Russian buyers, for example, now spend an estimated $8 on non-Russian art for every $1 they spend on art from their own country, and Chinese collectors were beginning to follow their lead.
(Reporting by Mike Collett-White)