Sotheby's wins, $63.5m vs $25m

January 31 2015

Image of Sotheby's wins, $63.5m vs $25m

Picture: Sotheby's

It was a pretty impressive trouncing by Sotheby's in the New York Old Master sales this year. The headline totals of $63.5m & $25m include both auction houses' seperate 'Renaissance' sales. Take those out and just stick to the 'Part 1' sales, and the totals are Sotheby's $57m vs Christie's $9.2m. That's not even a contest. 

The 'Part 2' sales were also a bit of mismatch: Sotheby's $10.2m vs Christie's $2.9m.

For comparison, below are the totals for the 'Part 1' sales going back over the last seven years, together which whatever major seperate sales the auction houses have also held (be it a 'Renaissance' sale or, for one year only at Christie's, 'The Art of France'). I've included only the January sales, as these are the larger of the two annual sales in New York (similarly, in London, the July sales are traditionally seen as the more important of London's two annual sales):


  • Jan 15 $25m (Part 1 $9.2m & Renaissance $15.7m)
  • Jan 14 $60.7m (Part 1 $15.8m & Renaissance $44.9m)
  • Jan 13 $62.5m (Part 1 $19.9m & Renaissance $42.6m)
  • Jan 12 $44.3m (Part 1 $34.3m & 'Art of France' $10m)
  • Jan 11 $28.1m
  • Jan 10 $39.5m
  • Jan 09 $15.1m


  • Jan 15 $63.5m (Part 1 $57m & Renaissance $6.5m)
  • Jan 14 $67.7m (Part 1 £51.3 & 'Courts of Europe' $16.4m)
  • Jan 13 $72.1m (Part 1 $58.2 & 'Baroni Estate' $13.8m)
  • Jan 12 $62m
  • Jan 11 $102.5m (Part 1 $90.6m & Safra Collection $11.9m)
  • Jan 10 $61.6m
  • Jan 09 $63.9m


  • Christie's $275.2m (average $39.3m) 
  • Sotheby's $493.3m (average $70.5m)

I hope I haven't missed anything out. But it seems that Sotheby's have consistently had the better results. I know the headline totals are chicken feed compared to contemporary, but this is the sort of performance Sotheby's activist shareholder Dan Loeb should think about next time he slags the company off.

How, then, do Sotheby's New York do it? My impression over the years is that they usually manage to capture the better pictures, which of course is essential. Maybe it helps too that they have the better premises (by some distance). A key ingredient of their success (but an underrated one perhaps) is that they have Henry Wyndham (above) at the rostrum - for me, the best auctioneer in the business; cajoling bids out of the punters is a real art, and harder than it looks. But also, as one leading New York Old Master dealer writes:

Somehow George and Christopher can really sell their pictures. I am always in admiration of how they do it.

Me too. The George and Christopher referred to are George Wachter and Christopher Apostle, the two long-standing heads of Sotheby's Old Master department in New York. Wachter is above closest to Henry Wyndham, and Apostle is far left. I know the latter better - and can attest that he's one of the good guys in the art trade - but both have always struck me as formidable operators, as well as having an excellent 'eye'. Whatever it is, they're unbeatable at the moment. 

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