(Bloomberg) -- It’s been a banner year for the auction houses. 

Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips have just released superlative-filled yearend reports. Christie’s global sales hit $8.4 billion, the highest annual total in art-market history, the auction house claims. Sotheby’s was close behind with $8 billion in sales, also its highest (though it comes with some major caveats) and the much smaller Phillips reported its best year ever too, with a final tally of $1.3 billion.

But a note of warning: This record year might say more about the nature of the auction house business than the art market itself.

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Sotheby’s total, for instance, includes only $6.8 billion of fine art and luxury sales, a decline of almost 7% from last year’s $7.3 billion. The remaining $1.2 billion in Sotheby’s yearend report came from the car auctioneer RM Sotheby’s and the real estate auctioneer Sotheby’s Concierge Auctions. (Sotheby’s doesn’t own either the car auctioneer or the real estate auctioneer outright, and only acquired a percentage of the latter in November, 2021. Even so, it reported 100% of its sales totals as its own.)

But the decline in its core business isn’t as dramatic as it looks. In 2021 Sotheby’s sold a $92 million Botticelli, an $82.5 million Rothko and a $78.4 million Giacometti. Remove just those three artworks from the equation, and this year and last year’s fine art numbers are near parity. These yearend totals, in other words, come down to whether a house can snare a few top consignments; they have very little to do with the strength or weakness of today’s market. 

Phillips was able to supplement its overall numbers by pushing into new categories. Traditionally an auction house known for cutting-edge, hyper-contemporary art, this year it had a 50% increase in the volume of modern artworks it sold—from the likes of Marc Chagall, Roy Lichtenstein and Pablo Picasso—for multimillion-dollar sums. And so, while 148 artists had their auction debuts at Phillips this year, its sale of a four decade-old $85 million Jean-Michel Basquiat and a $41.6 million Cy Twombly, painted when the artist was in his late 70s, helped carry the house to unprecedented heights.

Meanwhile, Christie’s, which had the strongest showing of all, sold a massive $6.2 billion worth of 20th and 21st century art alone. A category it calls classics, which includes old masters, memorabilia, antiques and decorative arts, added $789 million to its total tally, and its luxury categories came within spitting distance of $1 billion. A final category, Asian and world art, carried the rest, with just under $400 million in sales. 

Christie’s results were propelled by several unprecedented single-owner sales, including $1.6 billion worth of art from the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s estate. But its results were also fueled by a rise in price per lot. Last year, Christie’s sales totaled $7.1 billion, meaning they rose 18.3% year over year. The volume of lots sold rose more modestly, from 43,386 to 46,322, or about 6.7%.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, Christie’s dominated the very top of the market, selling 7 of this year’s 10 most expensive artworks.

For the official list, look below.

10. René Magritte’s L’empire des Lumières, 1961 — $79.8 million 

The backstory:  One of Magritte’s most iconic images, the painting was first purchased directly from the artist and remained in the same family ever since. Expected to sell for about $60 million, its total sales amount (including auction house premium) more than doubled Magritte’s record at auction. The work sold at Sotheby’s in London.

9. Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled, 1982 — $85 million 

The backstory:  Consigned by the Japanese e-commerce billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, the work yielded a 48% return in just six years. The 16-foot-wide painting was the third-most expensive artwork by the artist to ever sell at auction. It was purchased by an anonymous Asian client of Phillips in New York. 

8. Andy Warhol’s White Disaster [White Car Crash 19 Times], 1963 — $85.4 millionWhite Disaster [White Car Crash 19 Times], (1963).

The backstory:  At just over 12 feet high, this painting requires a serious amount of wall space. Carrying a hefty $80 million presale estimate, the work met, though it didn’t wildly exceed, expectations. (Another painting from Warhol’s Car Crash series set a record when it sold for $105.4 million in 2013.) The work sold at Sotheby’s in New York.

7. Lucian Freud’s Large Interior, W11 (after Watteau), 1981-83 — $86 million

The backstory:  Obliterating Freud’s previous auction record of $56.2 million, this large, exquisite painting was sold in the Paul Allen collection evening sale. The work had set a record before, becoming Freud’s most expensive painting at auction in 1998, when it sold for $5.8 million. The work, like the remaining top 10-list paintings detailed below, sold at Christie’s in New York.

6. Gustav Klimt’s Birch Forest, 1903 — $105 million

The backstory:  The lot easily cleared its presale estimate of $90 million, and in doing so set a worldwide record for the artist at auction. Part of Paul Allen’s collection, the painting was purchased by the late billionaire in 2006 for a mere $40.3 million. (While the painting set an auction record, Klimts have sold for even more in private transactions, including cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder’s $135 million purchase of Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, which took place the same year Allen bought his.)

5. Paul Gauguin’s Maternité (II), 1899 — $106 million

The backstory:  When it sold above its presale estimate of $90 million, the Gauguin was the second work of art to sell for more than $100 million on the night of the Paul Allen sale. But Allen didn’t exactly get it for a bargain: He bought it in 2004 for $39.2 million, which at the time was a worldwide auction record for the artist.

4. Vincent van Gogh’s Verger avec Cyprès, 1888 — $117 million

The backstory:  Another entry, another auction record. Ahead of the sale, the auction house had estimated that the work would bring in $100 million—if it sold for that amount, it would already best van Gogh’s previous record of $82.5 million, set all the way back in 1990. With this total, van Gogh’s market has officially entered a new, nine-figure sphere. 

3. Paul Cezanne’s La Montagne Sainte-Victoire, 1888-90 — $138 million

The backstory:  At this point in the list it’s almost trite to note that the painting set an auction record, but, dear reader, try not to be so jaded: The total more than doubles the artist’s previous public sales record. This represents a major return on investment: Allen bought the work for just $38.5 million in 2001.

2. Georges Seurat’s Les Poseuses, Ensemble (Petite version), 1888 — $149 million

The backstory:  This comparatively tiny painting sold for a colossal sum. Just 15.5 inches high and 19.75 inches wide, it carried a presale estimate of $100 million and sold for almost 50% more than even that amount. (And yes, it once again set a world record for the artist at auction.)

1. Andy Warhol’s Shot Sage Blue Marilyn, 1964 — $195 million

The backstory:  When the work sold in May it immediately became the most expensive 20th century artwork, and the most expensive American artwork, ever to sell at auction. (As for the most expensive artwork to sell at auction in history? That’s reserved for a slightly older piece that went for $450 million in 2017.) The buyer of the Warhol was technically the art dealer Larry Gagosian, though it’s likely he was purchasing it on behalf of one of his billionaire clients. 

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