Sotheby's wins on technology and service

Sotheby’s: a 21st century auction house for art and collectibles

Auction houses know that nothing wilts faster than the laurels you rest upon. At least it is an inescapable fact for Sotheby’s that centuries of good reputation is of some value, but isn’t enough to remain successful.

In fact, you are never any better than the smile you put on your clients’ face today.

The art business of Sotheby’s

Sotheby’s offers a unique set of convenient offerings for its clients and many of them have been perfected by an investment in digital technology.

The expertise includes specialist valuation, trusts & estates, tax advice, a corporate collection advisory service, private sales, to name but a few. Clients are not restricted to sell at Sotheby’s auctions when they use one of their services. It means you can choose your own partners to augment the services rendered and products offered by Sotheby’s.

The auction house and its clients have long gone digital

iBid is Sotheby’s system for bidding on auctions online, which is a user-friendly and intuitive way to attend auctions from afar. The auction house has further made some strategic alliances to offer online and mobile applications for the collector. ICollector, for instance, is a tool for managing your art portfolio by building appropriate records on provenance, and insurance information all making it more of a seamless process of selling art on Sotheby’s and elsewhere. In addition, it makes it simple to acquire other art via auctions with all records obtained in perfect order. It all saves time and drags the art market kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

End-to-end service

At Greenford Park in Middlesex, Sotheby’s even offers a storage facility with perfectly skilled handling, high-tech security, along with digitally monitored temperature-, humidity- and light conditions fit for optimum art storage. Serious collectors, who want to store art properly sometimes treat their art purchase more like an investment than an adornment of their own homes. They shrewdly realise that what Sotheby’s offer might be better and more cost effective than doing it all yourself.

Alongside technology, Sotheby’s has its tried and tested show rooms, and publishes auction catalogues for your and their own benefit. In US and Canada, the auction house further publishes a luxurious magazine called ‘Sotheby’s at Auction’. The magazine, with the imaginative name, provides a decent level of insight into rare works of art and other collectibles.


Anyone can register and attend an auction whether or not she bids or not. The bidding always starts somewhat below the reserve price, and carries on until there is only one person who has no higher bid than the others. You can also bid on auctions remotely. I.e you don’t just do it by telephone, you can also do it online. Auction houses have certain jargon which we have covered elsewhere on the website: auction estimate, authorship, buyer’s premium, consignor, fair market value, hammer price, lot, price realised, reserve price.

The public holding company

Sotheby’s is a conglomerate with a presence in 90 locations in 40 nations. While the brand is big on contemporary art, it also deals in real estate (cf.: Subsidiary Sotheby’s international Realty) and a host of other things which are not related to art per se. Although a quintessentially British – if not English – business, Sotheby’s is headquartered and managed in New York. The firm is roughly divided up this way:

  • Sotheby’s London
  • Sotheby’s Hong Kong
  • Sotheby’s New York, and
  • Sotheby’s Moscow

The structure of the company further consists of number of subsidiaries e.g. Sotheby’s Wine dealing in rare collectible wines.

If size matters

Sotheby’s is often quoted as the fourth largest auction house in the world, though ironically, no one can quite answer who the other three are supposed to be. Nor can they substantiate with facts whether the ranking is based on lots sold, revenue generated, capital reserves or the number of staff employed. Either way, the annual global sales of 2011 was US$ 5.8 billion. As for contenders, Christie’s is regarded their great rival, but Sotheby’s themselves regard Christie’s colleagues and the feeling is mutual, for all we know.

The formative years

Founded by Samuel Baker, John Sotheby, and George Leigh in London, Sotheby’s date back to 11 March 1744, which makes it one of the older establishments. However, there are older auction houses in both Austria and Sweden, for instance.

The first auction was a collection of books, and the services surrounding fine art have come along at a much later date. 1813 was the first art deal, and even then it took some years for art to be one of the core businesses.

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