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Although headline figures show last year’s £13.5m net profit turn into a $9.7m loss for the same period this year, a key factor underpinning these statistics shows the trend actually improving. Sotheby’s 2004 first quarter results were boosted by a one-off payment of $45m linked to the licensing agreement for their realty business. The $28.4m profit generated more than masked their losses, which would otherwise have been $14.9m – which puts this year’s first quarter loss of $9.7m in perspective.

The first quarter is traditionally a time of slow business, and a loss is not unusual.

Sotheby’s were keen to point out that last year’s performance was also boosted by the private sale of the Forbes Collection of Imperial Fabergé.

As with the year-end results announced in January, increased auction commissions have been key to boosting revenues. They rose $21.5m, or 56 per cent, quarter on quarter. Again their impact was offset by the lack of a sale similar to last year’s Fabergé collection.

Sotheby’s anticipate strong first half results after record-breaking Hong Kong sales and a successful launch into Russian fine and applied works of art in New York.