There is possibly no better place to witness the titans of the art market — the auction houses — duke it out than in New York. The economic and artistic center of America has become the venue for some of the largest and most important auctions in the world. Perhaps this is due to the incredible amount of art fairs and critical museum retrospectives that come here. (It isn’t just coincidence that many auctions happen to take place during these seminal events.)

Sure, China may have accounted for 33% of global fine art sales in 2011, but New York also has the statistics to prove its central — if not critical — place: 5 out of the 10 most expensive paintings in the world (two Picassos, a Van Gogh, a Renoir, and most recently, a Munch) and the two priciest photographs to date (Andreas Gursky’s “Rhein II” and Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled #96”) were purchased in New York-based auctions, at, to no one’s surprise, Sotheby’s and Christie’s.

These two have managed to maintain an almost hegemonic presence in the New York auction house scene. Their ability to cover a wide scope of the art market, while being able to offer up quality works and exceptional services, easily make them the go-to houses for most dealers and collectors. If you’re looking for a Willem de Kooning lithograph from an earlier part of the artist’s career or a Chinese jade pendant from the Arthur M. Sackler Collection, you will probably see it show up at one of their auctions. That’s certain. What’s also fairly certain is that no matter what the auction is, these two are bound to perform very well.

But despite what many may think, Christie’s and Sotheby’s do see some competition, particularly in the contemporary space — which just happens to be where the money lies. Phillips de Pury, which focuses exclusively on contemporary art, ranks right behind the two. The house is smaller and may not be able to ever capture a similar share of the contemporary market (According to Artprice, an independent provider of art market information, reported sales of contemporary art between 2009–2010 reached over $200 million at Christie’s, over $150 million at Sotheby’s, and over $63 million at Phillips), but it fulfills gaps that are critical to the market.

With sales like “Under the Influence,” Phillips offers up the works of young, global, 21st century artists and tests their value in the secondary market. The house also tries to sell slightly more affordable product. “We’ll take that chance … we’ll take that risk,” says Amanda Stoffel, evening sale cataloguer at Phillips, when describing the house’s emphasis on lesser-value pieces. Because of these unconventional undertakings, the house has become known for luring a slightly different clientele — young collectors, early in their careers, who can take the plunge in hopes of hitting it big.

Bonham’s, which trails closely behind Christie’s and Sotheby’s across most metrics, recently joined the contemporary bandwagon by devoting a department (headed by ex-Phillips de Pury specialist Anthony McNerny) to the space. Best known for its niche specializations, such as contemporary ceramics, and the sale of kitschy, pop-culture objects like Paul McCartney’s birth certificate, the house has already hosted two London auctions, Contemporary One and Contemporary Two, and is awaiting its first New York sale this May.

While some, like Stoffel, believe Bonham’s is bound to be a major contender in the space, others, like art advisor Erica Samuels of Art & Advisory, are not as certain. “I don’t think that Bonham’s has the market share yet … I think it’s probably hard for them.” Be it what it may, Bonham’s has the capabilities to make it big in the Contemporary Art market: it’s a well-known house with a massive global presence. Plus, it’s already attracted some major contemporary auction veterans to run its department.

For houses that lack the resources to contend head-on with the top 4, however, the ability to make it in the New York art auction scene requires an edge. Swann Auction Galleries is widely known for its works on paper — it sold a Jackson Pollock print last November for $102,000, the highest ever paid for a print by that artist — and is the only house in the world with a sale and department devoted exclusively to African American Fine Art. Since its start in 2007, the department has become a crucial venue for the works of many notable artists, including Kara Walker, Romare Bearden and Carrie Mae Weems. The house’s most recent African American Fine Art sale in February of this year totaled $1.73 million with buyer’s premium and included some hefty purchases, such as Kara Walker’s “Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated)” for $120,000, a record price for a print by the artist. To date, Swann remains one of the leading places to purchase African American art at auction.

Nicholas Lowry, president of Swann, argues that collectors are also attracted to the house because of the tailored, personal, and “much more involved experience” one gets. “You walk into Christie’s or Sotheby’s,” describes Lowry, “and you feel like you’re walking into a huge monolith.” This is perhaps the reason why houses like Doyle New York win a fair share of the market — they’re small and accessible but still able to offer up quality works and personal services for those wishing to sell their valuable art pieces. While Doyle is largely known for its estate sales, the medium-sized house also holds a wide range of other successful auctions. Its recent March sale of Asian Works of Art, for example, competed fiercely with the likes of Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Gianguan Auctions, an auction house that deals exclusively with Chinese and Asian Art.

Ultimately, the power in the market and the success of any house lies solely within the buyer, who is driven by the art being sold. For this particular reason, Christie’s and Sotheby’s will probably stay strong for years to come. But that doesn’t mean other auction houses in New York won’t either.

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Hannah Yudkin

Ever since Hannah Yudkin was a little girl, she’s had a penchant for Soviet culture, odd foods, short stories, and French artists. Her 4-year stint at Barnard College and 3-year tenure at the Columbia...