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As economy quickens, big auction houses rack up record sales

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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.

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.


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