Sotheby’s weathers ‘challenging market’ with $7.9bn of sales in 2023

Growth in areas including luxury goods and private sales helped Sotheby’s rack up a healthy $7.9bn total in 2023, a sticky year described by Sotheby’s chief executive Charles F. Stewart as a “more challenging market with much higher financial costs”. This total represents just a 0.8% drop from 2022, when the firm reached a record $8bn in consolidated sales—a total bolstered by the first-time inclusion of real estate and classic car auctions as part of Sotheby’s luxury offerings.

In 2023, fine art auction sales were pared back slightly at $4.3bn and luxury auction sales grew marginally to $2.2bn (in 2022 those figures were $4.4bn and $2.1bn respectively). However, private sales across both categories were up 7.9%; consignors tend to favour selling privately during economic downturns to avoid works being “burned” at public auction.

Sneakers, sports memorabilia and trading cards have all become part of Sotheby’s push in growing its luxury business, with a fair degree of success: luxury auction sales were up 4.1% in 2023. In the US, such sales achieved $410m—up 25% on the previous year. In Europe, luxury sales totalled $348m, the highest in six years; in Asia, collectors account for nearly 30% of the total value of worldwide luxury sales.

Sebastian Fahey, Sotheby’s managing director of global fine art, notes that the 2023 total represents a 200% increase in luxury sales since 2020. “There is clearly huge potential for further growth, and we continue to invest in this area of the business,” he says. “But this growth is not, and will never be, at the expense of the fine art sales at the core of our business that define our brand and our DNA. The new collectors we’re attracting in our luxury sales are already migrating into fine art.”

Another major shift in the market is happening thanks to Gen X and Millennials, with the former demographic accounting for more than 40% of bidders for items priced over $1m at Sotheby’s last year. For younger collectors, “luxury is often a first stop”, Fahey says. Indeed, Gen X and Millennials account for 87% of buyers in handbags, streetwear and spirits. But, Fahey adds, this generation “is really making its presence felt on the fine art side too, showing a strong interest in a range of artists— from Magritte to Bacon, Banksy to Kusama, Nara to Ruscha, Condo to KAWS, and Picasso to Warhol”.

In the fine art arena, single-owner collections are a rich source of such blue-chip material and 143 sales of this kind contributed $1.3bn to Sotheby’s bottom line, up 24% from 2022. Six collections alone totalled more than $50m, and 12 more than $20m.

The heavily guaranteed Emily Fisher-Landau collection in New York topped the bill, achieving $427m (including fees) across sales in November and December. Financial instruments such as guarantees, which can often mask the real health of the market, have become more commonplace among the big auction houses, particularly when it comes to winning valuable single-owner collections.

Nonetheless, securing the Fisher-Landau consignment—last year’s most valuable single-owner collection at auction—helped Sotheby’s best the 2023 sales total of its rival, Christie’s. The latter firm projected $5bn for sales of art and luxury goods at auction that year, 23% less than Sotheby’s total.

Lending against art—and now cars—was also up last year. Sotheby’s Financial Services closed 2023 with more than 30% growth having added lending against collector cars to its offerings.

Last year marked Sotheby’s 50th anniversary in Asia, where sales contributed $1bn—the third consecutive year for which results have hit the $1bn mark. Fahey says market hubs across the region “are continuing to blossom, with Hong Kong retaining its position at its very heart”. He adds: “While there has been some speculation about a potential drop in interest from collectors in Mainland China, to the contrary we in fact saw continued strong participation from this region in our sales across the globe and recorded standout sales in Asian art where Mainland Chinese buying is most prevalent.”

Sotheby’s continues to bank on Asia with the launch in the second half of 2024 of a new exhibition space, Sotheby’s Maison, in the heart of Hong Kong.

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