NEW YORK, DEC. 18 -- Christie's International released its autumn season sales figures today, showing a steep decline from last season, and announced a 10 percent staff reduction worldwide and a salary freeze at senior levels to offset the downturn.
Rival auction house Sotheby's announced similar cost-cutting measures last week.
Sales at Christie's totaled $651 million for fine and decorative art, compared with $1.06 billion last season, a 39 percent drop. Reflecting the slackening sales climate -- especially in the arenas of impressionist and contemporary art -- the giant auction house has eliminated 35 jobs in New York alone, from clerks to departmental art experts.
"The autumn season was marked by a reduction in the strength of buying interest in the field of impressionist and modern art, which has been the main contributor to the very substantial increases reported over the last four years," said Lord Peter Carrington, chairman of Christie's International, in London.
"We have therefore decided to take prompt action to reduce our cost base significantly enough to weather the current climate, but in a way which will not erode our ability to take full advantage of the next upturn in the market."
Anemic fall sales contributed to the gloom of Christie's calendar year total of $1.96 billion, 8.5 percent below its record $2.14 billion in 1989.
In 1989, impressionist/modern art accounted for 39 percent of the house's total sales and contemporary another 9 percent. During the 1990 fall season, Christie's sold $235 million in these categories compared with its record 1989 season of $597 million.
While 54 works of art sold for more than $1 million in the 1990 autumn season (August to December), 115 had topped the million-dollar mark the previous fall.
Carrington said the medium-to-long-term prospects for the auction house were nonetheless "encouraging," especially in Europe and the Far East. Jewelry, silver, decorative arts and Oriental works of art were strong performers. A 19.41-carat "fancy blue diamond ring" sold for $5.5 million in New York in October.
In this topsy-turvy atmosphere a spectacular van Gogh pen and ink drawing, "Garden of Flowers," sold for a record $8.36 million in New York on Nov. 14, but "Vase With Cornflowers and Poppies" by the same artist, with a $12 million-$16 million estimate, failed to sell the same evening.
Three weeks later in London, another van Gogh, "The View of the Asylum and the Chapel at St. Remy," consigned by Elizabeth Taylor, failed to attract a single bid at Christie's, despite an avalanche of pre-sale publicity. It was estimated to bring up to $19 million. The evening's auction was a major disaster for the house, with 75 percent of its value going unsold.