What Is Sotheby's?

Sotheby's is one of the world's largest auction houses and brokers of art, collectibles, jewelry and real estate. Founded in England and headquartered in New York City, Sotheby's is organized into three separate business units: finance, auctions and dealing. It also offers a number of related services, such as private sales and corporate art services. 

Understanding Sotheby's

Sotheby's acts as a market for the exchange of rare and valuable items for which there are few other ways of buying and selling. Because of the rarity of many of the items, the market for them is very illiquid. Sotheby's provides a way for investors and collectors to liquidate their holdings. Huge swings in valuation are common because gemstones, fine art and antiques are worth whatever whatever a buyer is willing to pay for them at the time they are sold.

Key Takeaways

  • Sotheby's is one of the oldest and largest auction houses and brokers of art, collectibles, jewelry, and real estate.
  • Sotheby's has different sources of revenue, such as charging commissions on sales and making loans on consignment for various artworks.
  • Sotheby's is owned by billionaire and telecom executive, Patrick Drahi.

Christie's is considered the main rival of Sotheby's. In September 2000 the two auction houses agreed to pay $512 million to settle claims that they had engaged in a price-fixing scheme since 1992.

Sotheby's Business Units

Sotheby's makes money by charging commissions on sales for art and other assets within its portfolio. Known as Buyer's Premium, these commissions vary based on the sale amount of the piece. For example, the auction house charged 25% of the hammer price for assets worth $400,000; 20% of amounts for assets priced between $400,000 and $4 million and 13.9% of amounts for assets priced above $4 million in 2019.

A significant part of Sotheby's business is private transactions (rather than public auctions). The company has a hand in art galleries and helping dealers finance purchases. It also engages in private sales via partnerships with dealers.

One of its more profitable units is Sotheby's Financial Services, which provides loans on consigned items as well as term loans using property as collateral, something traditional banks are less likely to do. Sotheby's Corporate Art Services helps corporations build and value their own art collections. Other units include iCollect, a cloud-based collection management system, Museum Services, Sotheby's Picture Library, Sotheby's Cafe, Fine Art Storage, and Valuations. It also assists on tax and legal aspects of items it handles, as well as helps beneficiaries, executors and other fiduciaries with handling estate and trust issues related to collections.

Sotheby's History

Sotheby's has been in operation since 1744. It started as a dealer of rare and valuable books. It is the oldest listed company (though not the longest listed) trading on the New York Stock Exchange (its ticker is "BID"). The company takes its name from co-founder John Sotheby. Chinese insurer Taikang Life (via Taikang Asset Management) was the company's largest shareholder with a stake of over 15% as of July 2018. Its second-largest shareholder is Daniel Loeb's hedge fund firm Third Point Management at just under 13%. Sotheby's shareholders approved a company sale that valued it at $3.7 billion to Patrick Drahi, a European billionaire investor and telecom executive, in 2019.

With the opening of its New York auction house operations in 1955, Sotheby's became the world's first international auction house. It became a U.K. public company in 1977 before going private in the early 1980s and then public again in 1988 in the U.S. as Sotheby's Holdings, Inc. After Patrick Drahi's takeover in 2019, the company has once again gone private. It was renamed "Sotheby's" in 2006. 

It conducted its first sales in Hong Kong in 1973, India in 1992 and France in 2001. Sotheby's opened in China in 2012. As of mid-2018 it operated 10 salesrooms around the world. Its BidNow program allows bidders to view all items and auctions online in real-time. In all, Sotheby's has 80 offices in 40 countries.