Quartz has a longer piece speculating on the new direction for Sotheby’s with the appointment of Domenico de Sole as Chairman and Tad Smith as CEO. On Monday’s conference call there was a lot of talk about Sotheby’s brand. De Sole’s previous experience as business mind behind Gucci’s rise also leads to some expectations about Sotheby’s that might not be realistic in the context of the auction business. Put simply, Sotheby’s is in the luxury sector but its not like a fashion brand:
de Sole’s track record as legendary luxury brand builder result[ed] in the constant references made in the conference call to Sotheby’s brand—and brand potential. But Sotheby’s brand is not what’s ailing the firm. To all but the most plugged in of insiders, Sotheby’s is the art auction business. […] They view it like the fashion business where handling temperamental creative types, nurturing their genius and knowing how to sell it profitably is the important skill set. That was de Sole’s inimitable talent. He grew Gucci by using the firm’s distribution network—and Tom Ford’s sex appeal as a designer—to attract other world-class talent to him so he could manage them equally well and profitably. Sotheby’s is already trying to do that with RM Auctions, the classic car auctioneer it just took a stake in.
From Smith’s comments, however, he and de Sole seem to be thinking of something else. It’s true that a fashion powerhouse like Gucci was born out of saddle maker who transitioned into snaffle-bit loafers in a textbook brand extension that eventually led to Tom Ford’s fashion dominance. But there were no successful Gucci phones or Gucci cars.
The worlds of fashion and art have been intermingling for almost a decade now. But the auction house doesn’t have much control over what it can bring to the podium. If it sells one artist well, it cannot—like a fashion company—put in an order for five times as many next season or offer the same thing in new colors. Sotheby’s is a great luxury brand but it doesn’t make anything but sales.