Art not only for "1 percent", says Christie's chief

Wed Jan 16, 2013 8:02pm EST
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By Mike Collett-White

LONDON (Reuters) - When the public sits up and notices the art market, it is usually when an anonymous buyer pays a mind-boggling sum to acquire a prized painting or sculpture.

In 2012, Edvard Munch's "The Scream" fetched a record $120 million, a Mark Rothko abstract soared to $87 million and a Renaissance drawing by Raphael sold for $48 million - all in a year when making ends meet was most people's priority.

Yet Steven Murphy, the first American to head the auctioneer Christie's since its creation in 1766, is convinced the key to future success after another bumper year of sales lies not with the "one percent", but a much broader pool of art lovers.

The 58-year-old, who worked in publishing and music before his surprise appointment to the head of the world's largest auction house two years ago, wants to rid the art world of its stuffy image as a club exclusively for the rich.

"It's sexy and it's cool and it's news to talk about the most important work in a single sale on a single evening, but one has to be careful of the myopia as a business of focusing only on that very important activity," Murphy told Reuters.

"Twenty percent of our buyers this past year were brand new to Christie's, never bought here before," he said in an interview at the company's headquarters in central London, sitting beneath a small Picasso being sold next month.

He was referring to one of the encouraging statistics in the company's annual sales report, which on Thursday showed record revenues of 3.9 billion pounds ($6.3 billion) in 2012, a rise of 10 percent on 2011.

In 2009, when the art market contracted sharply due to the global financial crisis, sales were just 2.1 billion pounds.   Continued...

Christie's auction house CEO Steven Murphy is interviewed at his office in central London January 16, 2013. REUTERS/Olivia Harris