Sotheby’s Posts a Widened Loss in the First Quarter of 2019 Amid a Dip in Private Sales and a Shift in the Auction Calendar

Sotheby's posted a $7.1 million loss in the first quarter of 2019, but CEO Tad Smith remained optimistic heading into the marquee May sales.

Sotheby's Hong Kong set the auction record for KAWS with his painting The KAWS Album (2017) in 2019. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Due to a calendar shuffle, a dip in private sales, and smaller-than-usual London auctions, Sotheby’s reported lackluster earnings for the first quarter of 2019. The publicly traded auction house posted a loss of $7.1 million for the quarter, or 15 cents a share—a bigger dip than last year’s loss of $6.5 million, or 12 cents a share, in the equivalent period.

It is not unusual for the auction house to see a loss during the first quarter, since its major evening auctions are held in New York each May and November, boosting the second and fourth quarters respectively. (Sotheby’s has reported first-quarter net income only a handful of times in its 30 years since becoming a public company.)

This time around, the loss was greater due to smaller London sales and a calendar shift that put of some of the spring Hong Kong sales in the second quarter. As a result, some $74 million in net auction sales will be reflected in the second quarter rather than the first, Sotheby’s said in a statement.

The auction house also experienced a drop in private sales, a sector it has historically led over its rival Christie’s. This quarter, private sales fell to $200 million, from $246 million in the equivalent period in 2018. “By their very nature can be unpredictable and results can vary from quarter to quarter,” Sotheby’s CEO Tad Smith said by way of explanation. “But in the long term, we expect continued secular growth.” He added that the six-month picture would be rosier due to several significant private sales that closed last month.

Sotheby’s also noted its commission margin on lots sold rose to 18.2 percent, up from 17.3 percent during the same period in 2018.

In a conference call with analysts and investors this morning, Smith acknowledged that the level of guarantees—financial arrangements made ahead of the sale that secure a set price for a work of art—was lower heading into the May sales than it was last year. He noted that a large number of estates and charitable organizations that have consigned work in recent months had a choice to go with a guarantee or a “share deal,” but opted to take their chances, which offers them a bigger slice of the upside.

“These are very sophisticated consignors,” Smith said, noting that many work with savvy art and financial advisors. “When you begin to see people saying, ‘Maybe we don’t want the guarantee,’ it’s a very interesting indicator of the health of the market.”

Looking ahead to the upcoming sales, Sotheby’s CFO Mike Goss said: “Clearly, we enter the quarter with two significant tailwinds: the favorable comparison we’ve already seen in Hong Kong and a promising outlook for the all-important New York sales in two weeks.”

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