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On the Olympia front, Mr Woodhead said that Sotheby’s lease would last until mid 2006 and that they were in discussions with the owners of Olympia as to what would happen next.

Although he couldn’t say for
certain whether Sotheby’s would extend the lease there, he denied recent reports that they were disappointed with the rooms’ performance. Olympia has worked well, he argued, because it has allowed the business to be more sensitive to the market in areas such as pricing and has maintained a good turnover of lots.

“We looked at 141 places before we chose Olympia. We had to have a big space, without columns, at a reasonable cost.”

Trying to find an alternative in two and a half years’ time does not appear to be an appealing prospect, and other recent changes are expected to help towards the bottom line.

Foremost of these is the shedding of the Collectors department in its existing form. Now the experts are to set up on their own, using Sotheby’s facilities to market and hold their own various-owner sales, while continuing to act as consultants for Sotheby’s inhouse single-owner offerings. By doing this, Sotheby’s maintain the expertise and variety of sales while reducing their expenses.

It’s a policy they adopted some time ago with their coins sales, now conducted by Morton and Eden.
The issue of cost control is one that Mr Woodhead feels no reason to apologise for. “We shape our business to suit the market,” he said, “and we will continue to do so. The market over all has been 27 per cent smaller this year than in 1999.” That has meant cutting back on staffing and other areas, “but we have preserved core expertise and the support areas over the last four years, and we need to protect these at all costs.”

Shaping the business to suit the
market also means being prepared to expand capacity when required, and their inhouse training programme enables them to develop new talent for this.

It’s talent like this that they hope to be able to draw on soon, especially as they believe that since September, sales have seen an upturn.

Although, across the board, sales earlier in the year have not been what they once were, there have been a
number of highlights such as the Hungarian themed sale and the £11.3m record Schiele landscape in June, the Rembrandt self-portrait in July, the Montaigne books in Paris in November – a white glove sale – and some decent results in Geneva for jewellery, a market that has not done that well for the past six or seven years. The New York picture sales in November have also helped, as have the Chinese sales in London and Hong Kong, and the growing influence of Russian buyers.

Sotheby’s also now boast a 70 per cent share by value of the London Old Masters auction market.

As of next year, silver, ceramics and rugs will be sold at both London rooms while jewellery, Russian paintings, works of art and watches will all be offered only from Bond Street.

Garden statuary sales will continue at Billingshurst, where Sotheby’s also maintain their regional offices, and there seems to be no more talk, for the time being, of selling off Summers Place.

Overseas, Sotheby’s see Paris as the most competitive of the global markets, and one where they are committed to further investment.

But what does Mr Woodhead see as the biggest challenge of the near future? “Dealing with the growing list of regulations – we have the largest compliance department in the industry, and it isn’t getting any easier.”