As economy quickens, big auction houses rack up record sales

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

What happened to many Americans last year was mirrored in the figures recently released by the bigger auction houses. If you found yourself with more income in 1983 than in past years, you're not alone. America's big auction houses also found themselves in that position, and it was a pleasant change from the last few years.

Phillips, an international firm, as most of the larger firms are today, announced a record turnover of $62,409,285. As Christopher Weston, chairman of Phillips, noted, ''It is our biggest percentage increase since the boom days of 1976.''

Leading the way to the record turnover at Phillips were such items as a painting by William Merritt Chase for $231,000, a letter by George Washington describing the day-to-day life at Mount Vernon for $53,900, and a little French corkscrew that brought $2,310.

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The venerable firm of Sotheby Parke Bernet, which underwent both an American takeover and a name change last year, is now known simply as Sotheby's. The firm , which had lost $5 million in the previous financial year, announced a year-end pre-tax profit of $7.4 million. Sales figures for the 1983 fall season were $200 million, a 74 percent increase over '82. Partly responsible for that whopping increase were such items as a Tang Dynasty pottery jar that sold for $484,000, a Navajo blanket that set a world record at $115,500, and a painting by Degas that brought $3.74 million.

Included in the Sotheby figures are two items sold for record prices by its London galleries in December. A 12th-century book of gospels with lavish illustrations was purchased by a West German group for $11.8 million, and a medieval deck of playing cards was bought by New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art for $143,550.

Even Sotheby's Arcade Auctions, the big gallery's little brother which specializes in items selling for under $3,000, saw an almost $2 million increase over the previous year's sales.

Christie's American sales were up 21 percent last season, too, according to president David Bathurst. The total turnover was $141 million. That figure was the highest yet achieved by the British firm in its five-year American history. Almost all collecting categories were represented in the record turnover. American art was up 57 percent; American furniture and decorative art, up 69 percent; and art nouveau, art deco, and arts and crafts objects, up 44 percent.

Some of the items sold by Christie's included a watercolor by Thomas Eakins for $550,000, a gold snuff box made in Paris in 1725 for $308,000, a Philadelphia Chippendale sofa for $264,000, and a rare American kneehole bureau that brought $627,000.

After last year's banner sales, how is this year shaping up?

The first indications are very favorable. Christie's broke all records for arts and crafts furniture (made in the 20th century) when it sold a hall bench for $93,500. A blown and cut glass lamp in the form of a peacock, used in the movie ''Gone With the Wind,'' brought $41,250 at a Butterfield auction in Los Angeles.

Furniture is doing very well this year. Sotheby's sold a Federal card table for $280,000. An American dining table with a rare accordion-action base brought

The antiques business is strong and healthy again, but many people are anxiously eyeing the Wall Street averages and the growing federal deficit. The business, to a large extent, is dependent on customers whose incomes are tied to a healthy economy, or at least perceptions of such.

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