is the world's second oldest auction
house in continuous operation (the oldest being Stockholms Auktionsverk
founded in 1674). Its predecessor, Baker's, was founded in London
on 11 March 1744
when Samuel Baker presided over the disposal of "several hundred scarce and valuable" books from the library of a certain Rt. Hon.
Sir John Stanley. This disposal however was not by means of auction and as Frank Herrmann and Brian Learmount observe, the business did not seek to auction fine arts
in general until much later, their first major success in this field being the sale of a Frans Hals
painting for 9 thousand guineas
as late as 1913. The current business dates back to 1804 when two of the partners of the original business (Leigh and Sotheby) left to set up their own book dealership.
Today, the firm has an annual turnover of approximately $3 billion, and offices on London's New Bond Street and Manhattan's York Avenue. This powerful position has been achieved through natural growth, acquisitions (most notably the 1964 purchase of the United States' largest auctioneer of fine art, Parke-Bernet), and smart management during the cyclical "art recessions" of the 20th century. Sotheby's New York completed renovations on its York Avenue headquarters in 2001 adding the unique capability to store works on the same premises as the specialist departments, galleries, and auction spaces. Christie's New York still employs an off-site storage facility for its Rockefeller Center offices. Sotheby's New York's offices are also unique in that they house Aulden Cellars (an in-house wine cellar) and the former Bid (an American contemporary restaurant and later bistro), which despite promising reviews closed due to poor attendance.
The company was purchased in 1983 by American millionaire A. Alfred Taubman, who took it public in 1988.
Sotheby's has an intense rivalry with Christie's for the position of the world's preeminent fine art auctioneer, a title of much subjectivity. In August 2004 Sotheby's brought its innovative SAP system online. Christie's is believed to be following suit late in 2007. In January 2007 Sotheby's adopted a higher buyer's premium policy, once again to be copied by Christie's. Sotheby's recently augmented its web services to focus more intensely on what its clients desired - in the form of MySotheby's - allowing them to track lots and create "wishlists" that could be automatically updated as new works became available. In May 2007, Sotheby's opened an office in Moscow in response to rapidly growing interest among Russian buyers in the international art market.
Sotheby's is distinguished by a number of world records for auctioned works of art. All monetary values are given in United States dollars.
- On May 22, 2002, Norman Rockwell's painting of Rosie the Riveter was sold for $4,959,500.
- Sotheby's holds the world record for most expensive painting and work of art ever sold at auction with (Picasso's Garçon à la pipe, $104 million).
- Contrary to popular belief Gustav Klimt's 1907 Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I was sold for a reported $135 million privately—not at auction—in June 2006. Furthermore, its price has not been officially confirmed.
- On May 3, 2006, Sotheby's auctioned Pablo Picasso's portrait Dora Maar au Chat which was sold for $95 million to an undisclosed purchaser, becoming the second most expensive artwork ever sold at auction.
- On June 7, 2007, a Roman-era bronze sculpture of "Artemis and the Stag" was sold at Sotheby's by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York for $28.6 million, by far exceeding its estimates and setting the new record as the most expensive sculpture as well as work from antiquity ever sold at auction.
- Sotheby's also holds the world record for most expensive piece of contemporary art ever sold at auction, with Mark Rothko's quintessential 1950 White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose), which grossed $72.8 million in May 2007 and was famously offered by David Rockefeller as well as the most expensive work sold at auction by a living artist with Damien Hirst's "Lullaby Spring" pill cabinet, which grossed roughly $19,300,000 in a June 2007 London sale.
- On December 6, 2007, Sotheby's auctioned the Guennol Lioness, a 3 1/4-inch limestone lion from ancient Mesopotamia. It is thought to be at least 5,000 years old. It was sold for $57 million, fetching the highest price ever paid for at an auction for a sculpture.
- On December 15, 2007, Sotheby's auctioned off a very limited copy of The Tales of Beedle the Bard, written by J.K. Rowling. Although it was expected to make just $98,350 the book was purchased for a hammer price of $3,835,980 by London fine art dealers Hazlitt Gooden and Fox on behalf of Amazon.com. The story behind the book is originally, the novel was mentioned in the Harry Potter novel series which contained children's stories. J.K. Rowling finished the real version in late 2007. There are only 7 copies in existence, each version unique by its' cover. Six were given away as gifts to those close to her, while the last "The moonstone edition" was up for auction with proceeds going to the The Children's Voice charity. Each leather bound copy was hand written and illustrated by J.K. Rowling.
In 1997, a Channel 4 Dispatches
programme alleged that Sotheby's had been trading in antiquities with no published provenance
, and that the organisation continued to use dealers involved in the smuggling
As a result of this exposé, Sotheby's commissioned their own report into illegal antiquities, and made assurances that only legal items with published providence would be traded in the future.
Price fixing scandal
In February 2000, A. Alfred Taubman
and Diana (Dede) Brooks, the CEO
of the company, stepped down amidst a scandal. The FBI
had been investigating auction practices in which it was revealed that collusion
fixing between Christie's and Sotheby's was occurring.
In October 2000, Brooks admitted her guilt in hopes of receiving a reduced sentence, implicating Taubman.
In December 2001, jurors in a high profile New York City courtroom found Taubman guilty of conspiracy. He served ten months of a one year sentence in prison, while Brooks received a six-month home confinement and a penalty of $350,000. No staff from Christie's was charged.
At the time of the scandal 59 percent of the company's Class A was owned by Baron Funds.
Sotheby's central London saleroom is in New Bond Street.
- Brian Learmount, "A history of the auction", 1985. Barnard & Learmont. ISBN 0951024000
- Christopher Mason, The Art of the Steal, 2004. Putnam. ISBN 0-399-15093-5
- Peter Watson, "Sotheby's: The Inside Story", 1998. Random House. ISBN 978-0679414032