A Brief History of Leading Auction Houses: Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Phillips, and Dorotheum

Dora Aguero
May 15, 2024


Auction houses play a crucial role in the art world, serving as platforms for buying and selling some of the most valuable and sought-after artworks. Among the most renowned are Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Phillips, and Dorotheum, each with its own rich history and unique contributions to the art market. These institutions have shaped the landscape of collecting, setting records, and providing opportunities for art enthusiasts worldwide.

We’ll delve into the fascinating history of these leading auction houses, exploring their founders, specialties, and notable sales. From the storied beginnings of Sotheby’s and Christie’s to the innovative approach of Phillips and the long-standing tradition of Dorotheum, each institution has left an indelible mark on the art world. Let’s take a closer look at the legacy of these iconic auction houses.

Sotheby’s

Founded in London in 1744 by Samuel Baker, Sotheby’s started as a book auctioneer and quickly expanded to include various categories such as fine art, jewelry, and decorative arts. The auction house gained prominence in the 20th century under the leadership of Peter Wilson, who transformed it into a global powerhouse. Sotheby’s specializes in high-end art auctions, including Old Masters, Impressionist and Modern, Contemporary, and Asian Art. The house operates through a combination of private sales and public auctions, with highly curated events attracting collectors from around the world. Notable sales include the record-breaking auction of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” in 2012 and the sale of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” in 2017.

Auction Houses
Video Still taken from “How Edvard Munch’s The Scream Became an Icon” by Sotheby’s

– Sotheby’s was the first auction house to operate internationally, opening its New York office in 1955.

Christie’s

Established in London in 1766 by James Christie, Christie’s is one of the world’s oldest and largest auction houses. Initially focusing on fine art auctions, Christie’s has since expanded to include various categories such as wine, jewelry, and collectibles. The auction house is renowned for its prestigious sales of Impressionist and Modern, Post-War and Contemporary, and Old Masters, attracting high-profile collectors and celebrities. Christie’s operates through a network of global offices and conducts auctions both in-person and online. Notable sales include the auction of Pablo Picasso’s “Les Femmes d’Alger” in 2015 and the sale of the Rockefeller Collection in 2018, which set a record for the highest-grossing auction in history.

Christie'S
Pablo Picasso’s “Les Femmes D’Algers



-Christie’s holds the record for the highest auction price for a single work of art, achieved with the sale of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” for $450.3 million in 2017.

Phillips

Founded in London in 1796 by Harry Phillips, Phillips began as a general auctioneer before shifting its focus to fine art and antiques in the 20th century. The auction house has a reputation for its innovative approach to contemporary art, design, and photography auctions. Phillips is known for its themed sales and curated exhibitions, showcasing emerging and established artists alike. The house operates through a combination of live and online auctions, catering to a diverse range of collectors. In 2022, Phillips made record sales reporting a total of $746 million in both auctions and private sales.

A Brief History Of Leading Auction Houses: Sotheby'S, Christie'S, Phillips, And Dorotheum
Image credit: Brett Beyer, found on Wallpaper*


-Phillips was the first auction house to introduce themed sales, such as the “New Now” auction series focusing on emerging contemporary artists.

Dorotheum

Established in Vienna in 1707 by Emperor Joseph I. Initially focused on selling royal treasures and court possessions, Dorotheum has since expanded its offerings to include fine art, jewelry, furniture, and collectibles. The auction house is renowned for its prestigious sales of Old Masters, Austrian and international art, and decorative arts. Dorotheum operates through a network of branches across Europe and conducts auctions both in-person and online. Ons of its most notable sales includes the auction of Gustav Klimt’s “Portrait of Gertrud Loew” in 2017.

A Brief History Of Leading Auction Houses: Sotheby'S, Christie'S, Phillips, And Dorotheum
Early days at Dorotheum

-Dorotheum’s headquarters in Vienna is one of the largest auction houses in Europe, with over 600 auctions held annually.

These auction houses have played a significant role in shaping the art market, facilitating the buying and selling of some of the world’s most valuable artworks. From their humble beginnings to their current status as global leaders, Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Phillips, and Dorotheum continue to drive innovation and excellence in the auction industry, attracting collectors and enthusiasts from around the world.

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