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Turnover for the final quarter rose 20 per cent year on year to $154.5m thanks to a strong set of sales results. With extraordinary costs linked to restructuring, staff retention and anti-trust matters slashed to around $500,000, compared to nearly $21m for the same quarter in 2002, net profits were $20.2m for the final quarter of 2003. In 2002 the figure was a loss of $6.5m.

While the year-end figures still show a net loss of $20.7m for 2003, this is the result of higher special charges and poorer sales totals earlier in the year. Even taking these into account, the loss is a considerable improvement on the $54.7m net shortfall for 2002.

Sotheby’s chief executive Bill Ruprecht announced premium-inclusive sales totals for the fourth quarter of 2003 at $793m, a rise of 15 per cent, with the year-end total set at $1.69bn, a five per cent drop on 2002. This slight fall did not concern him, however, as he reinforced the point that the company were now concentrating on profitability rather than on sales or market share.

The liquidisation of the real estate division last month brought Sotheby’s about $100m, which gives them the option of cutting back on borrowing – they secured a three-year, $200m credit agreement at the beginning of March – or expanding their investment programme.

Significant sales for the year ahead include the Hay Whitney collection of 44 paintings, estimated at $140m, for New York in May, property from the estate of Katharine Hepburn, for New York in June, and two outings for the Neville collection of books and letters, one in April the other in November, again in New York.