This isn’t really news. Nor is it trenchant financial analysis. But the Financial Times’s prominent Lex column is asking an existential question about Sotheby’s: why is it public? Implicit in that question is another, should Sotheby’s be—and can it survive and thrive as—an independent company. Both auction houses have been central to the expansion and transformation of the art marketplace. Can they contain the forces they have unleashed?
There is a delicate balancing act at Sotheby’s. It needs to invest in a changing art market where buyers in a prospering Asia are becoming important, as well as figuring out how the internet can supplement its traditional auction business. Its 2014 commission margin of 15 per cent fell a percentage point from 2013. Still, Marcato believes that Sotheby’s has $850m of excess capital between borrowing capacity, the ability to sell or borrow against its property, and cash on its balance sheet. It believes $500m of that should go towards share buybacks.
Sotheby’s: Auction Process (Lex/Financial Times)