The global art market was valued at $67.4 billion in 2018, the second highest year ever. The United States, United Kingdom and China are the three largest art markets. They account for 84% of the global market, with the U.S. capturing over half of that.
Auction houses are one of the biggest drivers of the art market. Sales at public auctions exceeded $29 billion last year. Five auction houses combine for over half of the global sales. And of those five, two far surpass the others: Christie's and Sotheby's, which handle more than 40% of auction sales.
Christie's and Sotheby's have rich histories. Sotheby's was founded in London in 1744 as a bookseller. In 1955, it became the first international auction house after establishing itself in New York. It would also become the first international auction house to sell in Hong Kong, Russia, India and France. Until this year, Sotheby's was listed on the New York Stock Exchange, a public company for 31 years. Sotheby's boasts offices in 40 countries and 10 auction locations, around the world. It offers about 250 auctions each year across over 70 categories.
Christie's was also founded in London and arrived shortly after Sotheby's in 1766. Christie's has offices in 46 countries with 10 auction locations and hosts about 350 auctions across over 80 categories each year.
It holds multiple records, including the most valuable work to be sold at auction, a Leonardo da Vinci that sold for over $450 million. It also sold the most valuable private collection at auction, the collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller, which achieved over $835 million.
Phillip's, the third largest London-based international auction house, was founded in 1796 with a narrower focus. While total sales have yet to exceed $1 billion, they've seen a 129% increase since 2014.
Year after year, Christie's and Sotheby's vie for No. 1 in the auction world with Christie's topping sales all but two years since 2008. In this art world, it's a competition for total sales and works of art while adjusting to economic and buyer trends. With names synonymous with the art world, success for these auction houses is often more about standing out than being top.