Christie’s sales of art and collectibles climbed 14% in 1H2017 amid restructuring by new CEO Guillaume Cerutti and signs that the art market has turned the corner after last year’s contraction.

The tally at London-based Christie’s, the world’s largest art broker, increased to £2.35 billion ($4.2 billion), the company said on July 19 in a statement. Its most expensive artwork was an egg-shaped bronze head of a sleeping woman by Constantin Brancusi that fetched US$57.4 million ($77.8 million), setting an auction record for the modernist sculptor.

Thirty-eight works sold for more than £10 million, up from 14 in the first six months of 2016 — a signal that sellers of marquee works are returning to the market and that buyers remain eager.

“There’s more confidence in the market,” says Cerutti, who became CEO on Jan 1. “Last year, we demonstrated that the buyers were still there.”

Christie’s and rival Sotheby’s attributed the 2016 contraction in auction sales to the anxiety of sellers, who preferred to sit out the market turbulence surrounding the Brexit vote and US presidential election. As the year drew to a close, “there were some questions about the attitude of consignors”, Cerutti says, adding that a potential market rebound “wasn’t taken for granted”.

Still, Christie’s results trailed its record sales during the peak of the market in 1H2015, when it raked in £2.9 billion, led by Pablo Picasso’s US$179.4 million painting Les Femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’).

Christie’s auction sales in 1H2017 rose 29% to £2.2 billion. Impressionist and modern art took over as the leading category, at £698.6 million. The category includes modern British art as well as American and Latin American paintings.

Post-war and contemporary art sales totalled £605.1 million. Christie’s cancelled its June auctions in the category as part of a company-wide restructuring, Cerutti says. The company is also eliminating 270 jobs this year — about 15% of its staff — and closed a long-time salesroom in London’s South Kensington area, which held its final auction on July 19.

Instead, it is focusing on new growth areas such as China, where the company opened a salesroom in October. Asian clients accounted for 35% of Christie’s buyers in 1H2017, and sales of Asian art doubled to £430.9 million.

Categories that saw a decline included private sales, luxury items and Old Masters. Private sales were £122.2 million, down 62% from a year earlier, when Christie’s brokered the sale of two canvases by Rembrandt van Rijn for €160 million ($257.8 million).

Closely held Christie’s does not report earnings. Sotheby’s, which will report 2Q2017 results this month, says its auction sales for 1H2017 totalled US$2.54 billion, an 8% increase. Its top lot was an untitled painting of a skull by Jean-Michel Basquiat that soared to US110.5 million in May. — Bloomberg LP

This article appeared in Issue 792 (Aug 14) of The Edge Singapore.