Exceptional beauty, rarity, and historical significance are among the factors that drive collectors to compete furiously for art, antiques and collectibles at auction. Sentimental value and investment purposes motivate some buyers. Deep in the throes of a global recession, the world's wealthiest collectors sent segments of the auction market to astounding record price levels in 2010.
Works by modern masters marched above the $100 million mark. First, Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti's "Walking Man I' strutted over $104 million before being usurped by Pablo Picasso’s “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust” which sold at Christie's in May for $106.5 million, making it the most expensive artwork ever auctioned.
Numerous artists achieved auction records, and multiple categories soundly broke previous records, among them, 20th-century art, rare books, diamonds, wine, Australian art, English furniture, New York furniture, and Chinese works of art.
Newly wealthy Chinese are spurring some of this growth as they seek to repatriate their own art and cultivate new tastes for French wine, modern masters, and blue chip contemporary art. Imperial treasures were snapped up by Chinese collectors including a Qing vase which fetched HK$251 million (US$32.4 million) in a $400 million series of sales held by Sotheby's in Hong Kong. Also of note, a 12-bottle case of Chateau Lafite 1982 vintage went for a steep HK$1 million (US$131,859).
A few institutions made noteworthy purchases, such as the Getty Museum's $45 million winning bid for a J.M.W. Turner landscape. (The painting has not been given an export license yet to move from London to Los Angeles.)
Rare pieces brought on memorable bidding battles. For one, a 33-inch Roman Imperial marble bust of Antinous, c. AD 130-138, the only known sculpted image of Antinous identified with an inscription, sold for $23.8 million, ten times the estimate, after an 11-minute fight for its ownership at Sotheby's.
While annual figures are still being tallied at auction houses worldwide, the year's totals may well be record-breaking. Christie's International has already reported 3.2 billion pounds ($5 billion) of art and other collectibles sold in 2010, a record amount that surpasses the firm's previous high of 3.1 billion pounds for 2007.
View 2010 auction highlights in ARTFIXdaily's slideshow below. (Prices quoted include buyer's premiums.)