Sotheby’s released its third quarter earnings report yesterday. Spanning the slow Summer months of July, August and September, the quarter rarely provides much in the way of directional information about the tone of the art market or the evolution of Sotheby’s strategy. Paradoxically, the absence of data usually allows or, even, requires Sotheby’s management to use their earnings call as a bully pulpit on their business.
Before we survey the color commentary Sotheby’s provided, there were some numbers worth paying attention to. For the first nine months of 2018, sales are up a solid 20% to $4.04bn. Half of that rise came from a 49% updraft in private sales to $675.4m. That puts the division on track towards a nice round $1bn in private sales. That number surely reflects the new-ish private sales division hitting its stride but also a quietly increasing industry trend away from public auction to private transactions.
Nowhere is that better seen than in the Warhol market where industry players insist four massive private sales have taken place behind the scenes while the 20th Century’s giant has all but vanished from the auction block.
Digging deeper into Sotheby’s numbers, one can see that auction sales are up in 2018 without relying upon Sotheby’s to empty its storerooms as the firm did in 2017. That means Sotheby's business improved markedly in 2018 without anyone really noticing. In the third quarter of 2018, Sotheby’s sold $6.5m of property that it already owned. These are works previously guaranteed that didn’t find buyers or inventory acquired in other ways. During the same period in 2017, that figure was more than 12 times that amount or $81m. For the nine months of 2018, inventory sales were $62.8m. The year before that figure was almost three times as high or $172m. Overall revenue was down but without an impact on the profit.
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