Sotheby’s Takes a Gamble With $1 Billion Credit Line

Sotheby's headquarters in New York.
Photo: Sotheby's.

Under pressure to improve margin lines as private sales have plummeted in the last year, Sotheby’s has considerably increased the amount it can borrow to make art loans in a strategic move to secure top clients and consignments, Bloomberg reports.

The auction house was able to secure $1.335 billion in senior credit facilities via GE Capital, with a $485 million credit line increase—88 percent higher than their previous line of $550 million, according to Businesswire.

Through this deal, Sotheby’s will have a competitive edge over banks such as Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Citigroup Inc., who also offer the service of borrowing against trophy art works to their clientele.

“Sotheby’s financial services is another area where we can expand and grow profitably through improved focus and attention,” Tad Smith, the house’s chief executive officer, said during a May 11 conference call with investors.

Smith, a former president and CEO of Madison Square Garden, took the helm at Sotheby’s after William Ruprecht stepped down in 2014.

Looking to increase revenue for the house, Smith has set his sights on the Finance segment (which is the third leg, along with Agency and Principal, in the company’s operations).

Finance is a small but rapidly growing sector of Sotheby’s that saw a rise of 79 percent in the first quarter of last year, to $15.9 million. Profits increased 41 percent to $4.3 million, according to Bloomberg.

The auction house’s revenue from its agency segment, which takes into account auction commissions, rose four percent to $127.9 million. This May, Sotheby’s sold $890 million of art in its big auction week in New York. Christie’s clocked in $1.7 billion from the same auctions.

Sotheby’s only recently switched its approach to finance loans on art. Until 2014, it used cash flow to finance loans, now it has a separate capital structure that employs borrow funds.

“The increased borrowings under our credit facility are driven by the record level of loan portfolio balances,” Jan Prasens, managing director of Sotheby’s Financial Services, told Bloomberg. “Art lending is a growing business for Sotheby’s.”

According to Forbes, collectors wanting to borrow against valuable art can use Sotheby’s and Christie’s, as they offer competitive rates—just so long as you are also buying or selling art through them.

Otherwise, interest rates can start from high single digit numbers to over 20 percent; most lenders are looking for large sums, typically over $500,000.

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