Setting an All-Time Record, Sotheby’s Has Sold $7.3 Billion Worth of Art in 2021. Here’s How

The robust results coincide with reports that owner Patrick Drahi may be contemplating an IPO.

Sotheby's chairman Brooke Lampley on the phone for the winning bid of the Constitution at Sotheby's New York.
Sotheby's chairman Brooke Lampley on the phone for the winning bid of the Constitution at Sotheby's New York.

Sotheby’s sold $7.3 billion worth of art in 2021, a record in the auction house’s 277-year-history.

The robust results arrive just as Sotheby’s owner Patrick Drahi is rumored to be considering taking the company public once again, according to Bloomberg News. Two years ago, the French Israeli billionaire took Sotheby’s private after 31 years as a publicly listed company as part of a $3.7 billion deal.

Drahi, who has been called a “cost-killer” because of his penchant for slashing budgets, has reportedly held preliminary private discussions with potential advisors about a U.S. listing as soon as next year, Bloomberg said.

A Sotheby’s spokeswoman declined to comment “on rumors or speculation.”

With about 20 auctions still left this year, Sotheby’s already surpassed its 2020 results by 71 percent, the company said. Auctions accounted for $6 billion; private sales achieved $1.3 billion.

Rival Christie’s is reporting its year-end results next week. It lost to Sotheby’s the year’s biggest prize, the Macklowe collection, which has already generated $676 million in its first phase. Sotheby’s will offer the second part in May. 

Auction sales, of course, dropped dramatically in 2020 due to the suspension of live events for a full nine months.

Sotheby’s credited its recent results to new sale formats and categories that attracted wider audiences: 44 percent of bidders this year were new to the auction house. Sotheby’s, like its competitors, was also quick to jump on the fast-growing desire for digital art, namely NFTs, and started accepting cryptocurrency for some lots. It has also skillfully mined the demand for fast-rising younger artists and figurative painters, including through the introduction of its “The Now” sale last month.

The company sold 158 lots in the price range of $5 million to $50 million, up 66 percent from 2020. Works that fetched more than $10 million appeared in a wide range of categories, including Asian art, contemporary, Modern, Latin American, Old Masters, watches, jewels, books and manuscripts, and NFTs, Sotheby’s said.

NFT sales accounted for nearly $100 million as the auction house launched the Sotheby’s “Metaverse,” a dedicated Web-3 enabled NFT marketplace.

There are early signs of crossover into blue-chip art buying by younger tech-savvy collectors, such as cryptocurrency magnate Justin Sun’s acquisition of Alberto Giacometti’s sculpture Le Nez, part of the Macklowe collection, for $78.4 million last month.

Now that Sotheby’s has honed its chops in building sophisticated hybrid sales that take place across multiple cities, it has also begun re-creating the New York saleroom experience in more remote locations, such as the bespoke saleroom it set up in Las Vegas in October for the auction of 11 Picassos, and the sale of part of the Karl Lagerfeld collection in Monaco in December. The house described it as “relocating the market’s center of gravity to meet clients.”

Sotheby’s also opened new premises in Cologne and Los Angeles, in addition to a private sales pop-up in Monaco. And it acquired a new building in Paris to become its  headquarters in the city.

The news of a possible IPO is surprising given that Drahi immediately announced after its acquisition in 2019 that he would be taking the company private, after 31 years on the New York Stock Exchange. At the time he described it as “an investment for my family.”  

Many high-profile executives, including Allan Schwartzman and Amy Cappellazzo, who came on board as part of former CEO Tad Smith’s acquisition of their advisory firm, Art Agency, Partners, have left since Drahi took over.

Drahi has a current net worth of $7.6 billion, according to Forbes, which also notes that he took his company Altice NV private this past January. Drahi built Altice with more than 20 acquisitions of lagging cable and mobile companies and expanded further with leveraged deals. It currently has a $7.3 billion valuation.

 


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