The ghost of Paul Allen haunted the Christie’s end-of-year press conference on Monday, during which chief executive Guillaume Cerutti said the house is projected to bring in $6.2 billion in sales across both its art and luxury categories.

Even though single-owner sales these days are a constant during marquee auction weeks, the $1.5 billion Allen sale last year was, as Cerutti noted, “historic and exceptional.” (All figures include the house fees, unless otherwise stated.) Because the Allen sale was such an outlier, Christie’s took an unusual route when it presented this year’s numbers, comparing them to 2022’s end of year figures both with and without that auction counted in.

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With the Allen sale taken into account, Christie’s total sales were about 25 percent lower in 2023 than they were in 2022. Take that unicorn out of the equation, and the sum was still in the red, down about 7 percent.

Still, Christie’s $6.2 billion haul is respectable. It’s higher than 2019, the last year before Covid struck, by about 7 percent. And that was before wildly low interest rates made money cheaper and easier to spend than ever before.

“2023 was truly a paradox,” Cerutti said at the start of the press conference, which was conducted over Zoom with executives from across Christie’s global infrastructure on hand.

For the auction house’s chief executive, the decline in sales totals wasn’t the most important metric. That distinction was given to both the year’s sell-through rate, projected to be 84 percent—“slightly lower than last year but still high,” Cerutti said and that a majority of the works that sold did so above the low estimate. “This shows you we continue to deliver strong results for our clients,” Cerutti said.

Of course, lurking behind that metric are the guarantees, which tend to skew results. When asked if data points like sell-through rates have become meaningless, Cerutti said that, yes, they still matter. He gave two reasons. One, sell-through rates are still very much top of mind for those who consign work to the auction house, and two, most of the lots don’t come with a guarantee. Knowing the sell-through rate and percent above low estimate is “particularly relevant” during today’s financially difficult environment because it also reflects the auction houses’ ability to accurately discuss the estimates with their clients.

“It’s of course a reflection of the performance,” he said, “but very often it means that also you have been talking and explaining to your consumers that they need to understand the market as it is.”

Private sales jumped from 14 percent last year of the total sales in 2022 to 20 percent in 2023. Cerutti hinted at, but refused to embellish on, a private sale that brought in “well above $100 million,” marking the highest sale of its kind at the auction house for a single lot. 

For those interested in a more granular breakdown, the house said its auction totals (including online-only sales) came in at $5.02 billion. Private sales stood at $1.2 billion. Luxury sales—for jewelry, handbags, watches and wine—contributing $1 billion to the year’s total, a record for the house for that category.

Asked whether Christie’s employees should see the negative sales as a sign that layoffs could be around the corner, Cerutti said there were no plans for layoffs. He said that Christie’s had emerged from the pandemic “a streamlined and well-organized business. Like in any year we are we are constantly adapting our business to the market. So we’ll continue to adapt and improve, but there are no plans on restructuring.”