Auction houses are the source of many of the world’s luxury goods. They sell Old and New Master paintings, jewelry that once belonged to celebrities, vintage cars, antiques, old coins, and other rare items not on the marketplace.
Auction houses with international reputations have the largest, most valuable inventories, offices around the world, and steady, astronomical sales. They are also leaders in the field of fine arts, since they bring new valuables to light and feature their collections in publications of interest to museum and gallery professionals, artists and art historians. A few are directly involved in higher education. For example, Sotheby’s Institute of Art was founded by Sotheby’s auctions and offers master’s degrees that prepare students for careers in the international art world. So which auction houses are the ones that get the most attention for their item selection?
5 China Guardian
The luxury industry is growing in China, so it’s no surprise that the country is now home to the world’s fourth largest auction house. China Guardian, Beijing is also the second largest auctioneer in its homeland. It was founded in 1993 by Wang Yannan, the daughter of former president of PRC Zhao Ziyang. From then until the mid-2000's, Guardian led the Chinese art market.
Indeed, the house’s largest category is exclusive Asian art. It sells Chinese oil paintings, sculptures and calligraphy, as well as Asian furniture and decorative arts: porcelain, jade, silk screens. The rest of the inventory comprises mostly coins, rare manuscripts, and watches. (China Guardian’s website features recently sold items, grouped by lot.) In 2012, the $6 million sale of Qi Baishi’s Album of Mountains and Rivers captured international attention and intensified the house’s prestige. Even more impressive was 2013’s $5.86 billion in sales.
China Guardian is now seeking to attract more art collectors, museums, and dealers around the world with its large selection of exquisite Asian art. It’s likely that the house will also enlarge its fine art inventory as it competes with other global auction companies.
4 Poly International Auction Company
Beijing Poly International Auction is China’s largest and strongest state-holding auction company, having overtaken China Guardian shortly after its establishment in 2005. Now, it has offices in Shanghai, Japan, Taiwan and the U.S. Last year Poly International raked in $7.88 billion in sales, many of which were art related.
Poly International’s extensive art collection includes ancient paintings, calligraphies, antiques, ink paintings, and decorative arts (ceramics, porcelain, etc.). Plus, it offers rare books and manuscripts, clocks, wines and liquors and scientific instruments.
The jade dragon shown above, a ceremonial disk symbolizing the sun and/or sky, was auctioned in 2013 for $9-12 million.
Naturally, Poly International, like China Guardian, is interested in advancing the global presence of Asian art, although it does have a North America and International Department as well. It continues to grow at full speed as it accumulates rarities of interest with high market value.
Auction catalogs can be purchased through Poly International’s website, where you’ll also find a schedule of their upcoming events and information on how to sell to them.
3 Heritage Auctions
Heritage Auctions is the world’s largest collectibles house. Pretty impressive for a company born in 1976. Based in Dallas, Texas, it specializes in U.S. and world coins, Western art, vintage comic books and comic art, jewelry and watches, rare books and manuscripts, Civil War memorabilia, space memorabilia, and much more.
Heritage Auction’s earnings for the year 2013 were nearly $917 million. Some of its most impressive sales were $1.2 million for a rare, 1792 penny, the first ever made by the Philadelphia mint, and a ground-breaking $1.7 million for a collection of Lalique crystals at auction.
Many of Heritage’s sales are conducted online, even though it has offices throughout the world. In fact, nearly half of the money it earns are from internet purchases. Just consider that Heritage Auctions gets three times as many unique visitors to its site than Christie’s does, and nearly thirteen times as many unique visitors as Sotheby’s site receives. The number of visitors to Heritage Auctions online is 725,000 per month.
What sets Heritage Auctions apart from other big auction companies is the fact that it was established on American soil and has never moved its headquarters overseas. It is, in this way, the largest all-American auction house in history.
Like Christie’s, Sotheby’s is a household name. Founded in London on March 11, 1744, it’s the fourth oldest auction house. In 1983, the American holding company merged with the British one. Now, Sotheby’s has 90 locations in 40 countries. New York City is its present day headquarters.
Sotheby’s is divided into three units: Auction, Finance, and Dealer, and has over fifty categories, including jewelry, Old Master paintings, fine wine, furniture and watches. The house's 2013’s total earnings for all categories was $5.2 billion.
Sotheby’s International Realty specializes in luxury real estate around the world. Potential buyers can browse a great selection of what’s for sale or for rent (prices and pictures are shown) on SIR’s webpage (part of Sotheby’s main site).
The picture shown below is one of the properties currently up for sale. Located in Aix-En-Provence, its price is available upon request.
Sotheby’s is the largest art business in the world. In May, 2012 it sold Edvard Munch’s The Scream for nearly $120 million, a record price for an auctioned work of art.
Sotheby’s also offers private (non-auction) sales and purchasing opportunities, as well as corporate art storage and appraisal services. The house also has a vast collection of digital images available for licensing and its own auction catalogs for purchase. You’ll find these publications at fine art libraries belonging to elite universities.
Christie’s has long been the world’s top auction house. Founded in 1766, the company now has 85 offices in 43 countries, including China, Japan, Spain, South Korea, Italy, Singapore, Israel, France, Russia, Germany and the United States. Its two main sales offices are located on King Street, London and Rockefeller Street, New York. Christie’s office in South Kensington, London is one of the world’s busiest auction rooms.
Christie’s has been a private company since 1988, when billionaire François Pinault’s private holding group known as Artemis bought it. (In 2003 Pinault’s son François-Henri became president of Artemis.) Last year Christie’s broke its own worldwide sales record by raking in $6.18 billion.
It broke another record in November, 2013, when it sold Francis Bacon’s modernist triptych, Three Studies of Lucian Freud for $142.4 million – that’s the highest price ever paid for a work of art at auction.
In 1995 Christie’s founded its subsidiary Christie’s International Real Estate as a result of clients’ requests for real estate services. CIRE is an international network of top brokers who market and sell luxury properties in more than 40 countries.
Apart from art and real estate, jewelry and antiques feature among the most popular items at Christie’s auctions. One of the house’s most publicized events was the show held in December, 2011 for Elizabeth Taylor’s personal jewelry collection. The Manhattan session sold eighty pieces from the late Hollywood icon, totaling almost $116 million, a record for an auctioned private jewelry collection.
One of the priciest pieces, Elizabeth’s pearl, ruby and diamond pendant choker, sold for $11.8 million.
Christie’s recently established an online auction service, which the company is encouraging clients to trust.
For those who love to keep up with Christie’s events the house publishes seasonal, theme-based brochures, both online and in print. The average print catalogue costs $60-$100. However, if you are not willing to pay a price you can find Christie’s auction catalogs at elite academic libraries for the fine arts.