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Art collectors feeling 'good' post-election: Sotheby's CEO

Donald Trump's election has helped boost optimism in the art market this week, and may lead to a faster recovery next year, Sotheby's CEO Tad Smith told CNBC Thursday.

The major auctions houses are expected to sell more than $1 billion worth of art in New York this week, with many of the top pieces having already shattering sales estimates. Those high prices reflect an optimistic mood among buyers, despite a recent slowdown in the market, Smith said.

The CEO's comments came hours before Sotheby's Post-war and Contemporary sale, which is expected to total more than $200 million.

"I think there's been a fairly good feeling among the art collectors this week," Smith said. "There's just a lot of very wealthy people from all types of countries... and they have a lot of capital to deploy."

The art market has recently suffered a correction, during which time some lesser pieces have failed to sell. With a few more sales to go at this week's auctions, Sotheby's and Christie's are expected to ring up more than $1 billion — nearly half of last year's total.

But Smith said that dip is not due to a lack of buyers, as collectors have not wavered from their demand for top works. The problem is instead due to a lack of supply from sellers, who have been nervous about political uncertainty and prices, he said.

"Everywhere I go around the world, and really for almost 15 or 16 months, we've had a large group of buyers that have plenty of money to spend and they want to buy things. The trouble particularly in the last six to 12 months has been there hasn't been enough that they were offering," Smith said.

"As long as we have a good, confident week, and I think we're going to do that, we're going to have more offered in the spring. That will free up the buyers. It's convincing those sellers that the buyers are there — that's the big opportunity."

Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale in New York.
Source: Sotheby's
Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale in New York.

Prices for several top works have sold for far more than their estimates this week. Christie's sold a de Kooning for $66.3 million — far above its $40 million estimate. The auction house also sold one of Monet's iconic "Grainstack" paintings Wednesday night for $81.4 million, blowing past its $45 million estimate.

Many of the prices fetched this week show how top works of art continue to appreciate at a rapid rate. Sotheby's sold one of Edvard Munch's paintings, called "Girls on the Bridge" for $54 million. That piece was previously sold by Sotheby's in 2008 for $30.8 million.

Despite those types of big-ticket works, Smith said he's committed to making Sotheby's more accessible to a broader group of clients by offering more affordable pieces. Some 60 percent of the items sold by Sotheby's over the past six months, around 50,000, went for less than $10,000, Smith said.

Online sales at Sotheby's have already topped $120 million this year, and one in three of bidders has placed their bid online. Fully 40 percent of those bidders are new clients of Sotheby's. The company also launched apps across several platforms, including Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV, and has improved its app on iPhone and Android.

The company has also launched the Sotheby's Museum Network for content produced by leading art museums and institutions around the world.

Smith added that he'll continue with his four strategic objectives at the company: improving growth, allocation of capital, and technology, and putting the right people in place to carry out its objectives.

"The key things that we're continuing to do is rolling out our growth strategy and fundamentally embracing technology in ways to bring Sotheby's and the power of the brand to millions of people around the world that don't currently experience it," he said. "We're excited about the future."