The official company literature states that founder James Christie (1730-1803) conducted the first sale in London, England, on 5 December 1766, and the earliest auction catalogue the company retains is from December 1766. However, other sources note that James Christie rented auction rooms from 1762, and newspaper advertisements for Christie's sales dating from 1759 have also been traced. After his death, Christie's son, James Christie the Younger (1773-1831) took over the business.
The Microcosm of London (1808), an engraving of Christie's auction room
Christie's was a public company, listed on the London Stock Exchange, from 1973 to 1999. In 1974, Jo Floyd was appointed chairman of Christie's. He served as chairman of Christie's International plc from 1976 to 1988, until handing over to Lord Carrington, and later was a non-executive director until 1992. Christie's International Inc. held its first sale in the United States in 1977. Christie's growth was slow but steady since 1989, when it had 42% of the auction market.
In 1990, the company reversed a long-standing policy and guaranteed a minimum price for a collection of artworks in its May auctions. In 1996, sales exceeded those of Sotheby's for the first time since 1954. However, profits did not grow at the same pace; from 1993 through 1997, Christie's annual pretax profits were about $60 million, whereas Sotheby's annual pretax profits were about $265 million for those years.
In 1993, Christie's paid $12.7 million for the London gallery Spink & Son, which specialised in Oriental art and British paintings; the gallery was run as a separate entity. The company bought Leger Gallery for $3.3 million in 1996, and merged it with Spink to become Spink-Leger. Spink-Leger closed in 2002. To make itself competitive with Sotheby's in the property market, Christie's bought Great Estates in 1995, then the largest network of independent estate agents in North America, changing its name to Christie's Great Estates Inc.
In December 1997, under the chairmanship of Lord Hindlip, Christie's put itself on the auction block, but after two months of negotiations with the consortium-led investment firm SBC Warburg Dillon Read it did not attract a bid high enough to accept. In May 1998, François Pinault's holding company, Groupe Artémis S.A., first bought 29.1 percent of the company for $243.2 million, and subsequently purchased the rest of it in a deal that valued the entire company at $1.2 billion. The company has since not been reporting profits, though it gives sale totals twice a year. Its policy, in line with UK accounting standards, is to convert non-UK results using an average exchange rate weighted daily by sales throughout the year.
Price-fixing scandal in 2000
In 2000, allegations surfaced of a price-fixing arrangement between Christie's and Sotheby's. Executives from Christie's subsequently alerted the Department of Justice of their suspicions of commission-fixing collusion.
Christie's gained immunity from prosecution in the United States as a longtime employee of Christie's confessed and cooperated with the US Federal Bureau of Investigation. Numerous members of Sotheby's senior management were fired soon thereafter, and A. Alfred Taubman, the largest shareholder of Sotheby's at the time, took most of the blame; he and Dede Brooks (the CEO) were given jail sentences, and Christie's, Sotheby's and their owners also paid a civil lawsuit settlement of $512 million.
In 2002, Christie's France held its first auction in Paris.
On 28 December 2008, The Sunday Times reported that Pinault's debts left him "considering" the sale of Christie's and that a number of "private equity groups" were thought to be interested in its acquisition. In January 2009, the company employed 2,100 people worldwide, though an unspecified number of staff and consultants were soon to be cut due to a worldwide downturn in the art market; later news reports said that 300 jobs would be cut. With sales for premier Impressionist, Modern, and contemporary artworks tallying only US$248.8 million in comparison to US$739 million just a year before, a second round of job cuts began after May 2009. Guy Bennett resigned just before to the beginning of the summer 2009 sales season. Although the economic downturn has encouraged some collectors to sell art, others are unwilling to sell in a market which may yield only bargain prices.
On 1 January 2017, Guillaume Cerutti was appointed chief executive officer.Patricia Barbizet was appointed chief executive officer of Christie's in 2014, the first female CEO of the company. She replaced Steven Murphy, who had been hired in 2010 to develop their online presence and launch in new markets, such as China. In 2012, Impressionist works, which dominated the market during the 1980s boom, were replaced by contemporary art as Christie's top category. Asian art was the third most-lucrative area.
With income from classic auctioneering falling, treaty sales made £413.4 million ($665 million) in the first half of 2012, an increase of 53% on the same period last year; they now represent more than 18% of turnover. The company has promoted curated events, centred on a theme rather than an art classification or time period.
As part of a companywide review in 2017, Christie's announced the layoffs of 250 employees, or 12 percent of the total work force, based mainly in Britain and Europe.
From 2008 until 2013, Christie's charged 25 percent for the first $50,000; 20 percent on the amount between $50,001 and $1 million, and 12 percent on the rest. From 2013, it charged 25 percent for the first $75,000; 20 percent on the next $75,001 to $1.5 million and 12 percent on the rest.
Christie's main London saleroom is on King Street in St. James's, where it has been based since 1823. It had a second London saleroom in South Kensington which opened in 1975 and primarily handled the middle market. Christie's permanently closed the South Kensington saleroom in July 2017 as part of their restructuring plans announced March 2017. The closure was due in part to a considerable decrease in sales between 2015 and 2016 in addition to the company expanding its online sales presence.
Until 2001, Christie's East, a division that sold lower-priced art and objects, was located at 219 East 67th Street. In 1996, Christie's bought a townhouse on East 59th Street in Manhattan as a separate gallery where experts could show clients art in complete privacy to conduct private treaty sales. Christie's opened a Beverly Hills salesroom in 1997.
In January 2009, Christie's had 85 offices in 43 countries, including New York City, Los Angeles, Paris, Geneva, Houston, Amsterdam, Moscow, Vienna, Buenos Aires, Berlin, Rome, South Korea, Milan, Madrid, Japan, China, Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok, Tel Aviv, Dubai, and Mexico City.
In early 2017, Christie's announced plans to close its secondary South Kensington salesroom at the end of the year and scale back its operation in Amsterdam. In April 2017, Christie's is to open a 4,500 square feet two-story flagship space in Beverly Hills, California.
Pontormo, Portrait of a Halberdier, 1528-1530. Sold by Christie's for US$35. 2 million in 1989. (J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles)
In 1998, Christie's in New York sold the famous Archimedes Palimpsest after the conclusion of a lawsuit in which its ownership was disputed.
In November 1999, a single strand necklace of 41 natural and graduated pearls, which belonged to Barbara Hutton, was auctioned by Christie's Geneva for $1,476,000.
In June 2001, Elton John sold 20 of his cars at Christie's, saying he didn't get the chance to drive them because he was out of the country so often. The sale, which included a 1993 Jaguar XJ220, the most expensive at £234,750, and several Ferraris, Rolls-Royces, and Bentleys, raised nearly £2 million.
In 2006, a single Imperial Qing Dynasty porcelain bowl, another item which belonged to Barbara Hutton, was auctioned by Christie's Hong Kong for a price of $22,240,000.
On 16 May 2006, Christie's auctioned a Stradivarius called The Hammer for a record US$3,544,000. It was, at that time, the most paid at public auction for any musical instrument.
In November 2006, four celebrated paintings by Gustav Klimt were sold for a total of $192 million, after being restituted by Austria to Jewish heirs after a lengthy legal battle.
In 2006, controversy arose after Christie's auctioned off artefacts known to be looted from Bulgaria.
In November 2007, an album of eight leaves, ink on paper, by China's Ming Dynasty court painter Dong Qichang was sold at the Christie's Hong Kong Chinese Paintings Auction for US$6,235,500, a world auction record for the artist.
Over a three-day sale in Paris in February 2009, Christie's auctioned the monumental private collection of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé for a record-breaking 370 million euros (US$490 million). It was the most expensive private collection ever sold at auction, breaking auction records for Brâncu?i, Matisse, and Mondrian. The "Dragons" armchair by Irish furniture designer Eileen Gray sold for 21.9 million euros (US$28 million), setting an auction record for a piece of 20th century decorative art.
In 2009, controversy arose again after the auction of two imperial bronze zodiac sculptures (for US$36 million) collected by Yves Saint Laurent, stemming from the fact that these items were looted in 1860 from the Old Summer Palace of Beijing by French and British forces at the close of the Second Opium War.
Christie's Hong Kong, November 2009 sale of Fine Modern Chinese Paintings, sold a work by Fu Baoshi titled Landscape inspired by Dufu's Poetic Sentiments, for HK$60,020,000 (US$7,780,105) - a world record for the artist.
On 18 April 2012, the silver cup given to the marathon winner, Greek athlete Spyridon Louis, at the first modern Olympic Games staged in Athens in 1896 sold for GB£541,250 (US$860,000), breaking the auction record for Olympic memorabilia.
On 11 May 2015, Pablo Picasso's Les Femmes d'Alger ("Version O") sold for US$179.3 million to an unnamed buyer, becoming the most expensive work of art ever to be sold at auction at Christie's New York. In November of the same year, Amedeo Modigliani's Nu Couché (1917-18) sold at Christie's in New York for $170.4 million, making it the second most expensive work sold at auction.
On June 25, 2020, Christie's sold a Timurid Quran manuscript, described as "rare and breathtaking", for £7 million (with fees), ten times its estimate. The price was the highest price ever paid for a Quran manuscript. Probably created at a Timurid prince's court, the manuscript comprised 534 folios of Arabic calligraphy on "gold-flecked, coloured paper from Ming China". The sale was criticized that since the "object apparently has no provenance prior to the 1980s, we can't know anything about the context in which it was removed from its country of origin."
Insufficient or invalid provenance for auctioned artifacts
Christie's has been criticized for "an embarrassing history of a lack of transparency around provenance". In May 2020, Hobby Lobby sued the auction house for its sale of a Gilgamesh tablet, allegedly while knowing it had a fake provenance. In June 2020, they were forced to withdraw four Greek and Roman antiquities from sale after it was discovered that they came from "sites linked to convicted antiquities traffickers". The same month, they were criticized for putting up a Benin plaque and two Igboalusi figures for auction. The plaque was tied to similar plaques taken from Nigeria during the Benin Expedition of 1897 and remained unsold after an auction was held. The alusi figures are alleged to have been taken from Nigeria during the Nigerian Civil War and were sold for EUR212,500 (after fees), below their low estimate of EUR250,000. Christie's claims to require "verifiable documented provenance that the object was taken out of its source nation prior to the earlier date of 2000, or the date which is legally applicable between the country in which the sale takes place and the source nation".
Christie's Fine Art Storage Services (CFASS)
Christie's first ventured into storage services for outside clients in 1984, when it opened a 100,000 square feet brick warehouse in London that was granted "Exempted Status" by HM Revenue and Customs, meaning that property may be imported into the United Kingdom and stored without incurring import duties and VAT. Christie's Fine Art Storage Services, or CFASS, is a wholly owned subsidiary that runs Christie's storage operation.
In September 2008, Christie's signed a 50-year lease on an early 1900s warehouse of the historic New York Dock Company in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and subsequently spent $30 million converting it into a six-storey, 250,000 square feet art-storage facility. The facility opened in 2010 and features high-tech security and climate controls that maintain a virtually constant 70° and 50% relative humidity.
Located near the Upper Bay tidal waterway near the Atlantic Ocean, the Brooklyn facility was hit by at least one storm surge during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. CFASS subsequently faced client defections and complaints arising from damage to works of art. In 2013, AXA Art Insurance filed a lawsuit in New York court alleging that CFASS' "gross negligence" during the hurricane damaged art collected by late cellist Gregor Piatigorsky and his wife Jacqueline Rebecca Louise de Rothschild. Later that year, StarNet Insurance Co., the insurer for the LeRoy Neiman Foundation and the artist's estate, also filed a lawsuit in New York Supreme Court claiming that the storage company's negligence caused more than $10 million in damages to Neiman's art.
Christie's Education offers graduate programmes in London and New York, and non-degree programmes in London, Paris, New York and Melbourne.
With Bonhams, Christie's is a shareholder in the London-based Art Loss Register, a privately owned database used by law enforcement services worldwide to trace and recover stolen art.
^The Art Loss Register, Ltd.: "The Art Loss Register is the world's largest database of stolen art and antiques dedicated to their recovery. Its shareholders include Christie's, Bonhams, members of the insurance industry and art trade associations. " Retrieved 27 September 2008.