A 28% Uptick in Private Sales Boosts Sotheby’s Robust Fourth-Quarter Results

The auction house is increasingly focused on turning itself into a full-service art business.

Sotheby's New York. (Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images)

Publicly traded shares of Sotheby’s enjoyed a spike this morning after the auction house released its earnings report for the fourth quarter and the full year of 2017. The figures showed a healthy boost in overall revenue and net income, including a 28 percent uptick in private sales last year to just under $750 million. All told, the house reported consolidated sales of $5.5 billion, up just over 12 percent compared to 2016.

In a lengthy conference call with analysts and investors this morning, Sotheby’s CEO Tad Smith was bullish on the house’s prospects. “We had a very good year in 2017, and are planning to have an even better one in 2018,” he said. Smith, who has led the auction house for three years, was fresh off last night’s sale of a 1937 Picasso in London for $69 million, which he called “a pleasing indicator for the year ahead.”

Total revenues for the year were up 23 percent, to $989.4 million from $805 million in 2016. Meanwhile, net income per share rose to $2.20 cents, up from $1.27 the previous year. For the fourth quarter of 2017—a key quarter for the house, since it includes the major November evening auctions in New York—the house reported net income of $76.7 million, or $1.43 cents a share, an increase of 17 percent and 19 percent, respectively, over the fourth quarter of 2016.

Under Smith’s tenure, the house has made several bold moves, including the acquisition of Art Agency, Partners, the advisory firm founded by former Christie’s contemporary department head Amy Cappellazzo and top art advisor Allan Schwartzman, in early 2016.

Smith said that AAP’s new artist estate advisory business “has grown more rapidly than we anticipated, now with 13 clients and a number in contract.” (The newly announced collaboration between the estate of Vito Acconci, AAP, and Pace Gallery offers a glimpse at how that arm of the business may evolve.) The advisory has also begun to work with a number of clients “who are building private museums, presenting us with yet another avenue for growth,” Smith said.

Over the past 13 months, Sotheby’s has also acquired Jamie Martin’s well-regarded forensic analytic firm Orion, the high-end online design marketplace Viyet, and the artificial intelligence startup Thread Genius.

Sotheby's share performance for the past 12 months <br> Courtesy Yahoo Finance

Sotheby’s share performance for the past 12 months. Courtesy Yahoo Finance

Smith was particularly proud of the jump in private sales, which marked the division’s best performance in four years. Former J.P. Morgan director David Schrader joined Sotheby’s to lead the department last spring.

Sotheby’s gain stands in contrast to Christie’s, which experienced a 35 percent dip in private sales between 2016 and 2017. It also points to the two house’s differing strategies: While Sotheby’s is focused on building itself out into a full-service art business, Christie’s appears to remain laser-focused on high-wattage sales. It reported total revenue of $6.6 billion in 2017 (though as a private company, Christie’s is not required to break down its earnings). Sotheby’s, meanwhile, reported consolidated sales of $5.5 billion.

Sotheby’s also pointed to growth in the “core of the middle market,” an area where the auction house can make particularly strong commissions. Lots between $100,000 and $1 million grew four percent by volume and nine percent by value.

So far, shareholders seem to be pleased by the results. Immediately following the announcement, Sotheby’s shares were trading on the New York Stock Exchange above $52 this morning, up $6, or 13 percent, from yesterday. By publication time, they had dipped back down slightly, to $50.43.

Sotheby's share performance in past five days including trading after this morning's earnings report. Courtesy Yahoo Finance

Sotheby’s share performance in past five days including trading after this morning’s earnings report. Courtesy Yahoo Finance

Follow Artnet News on Facebook:

Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.
  • Access the data behind the headlines with the artnet Price Database.