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With the fall-out from post-boom guarantees now a thing of the past, the company’s $73.6m net profit came second only to the $95.3m they earned during the heyday from March to June 2008.

One of the benefits of falling prices is a higher average commission rate, and auction-related earnings certainly showed a healthy increase on the same period in 2008 – when the slump started – up by nearly $56m. Overall expenses have been cut by a further $47.5m year on year for the final quarter.

The hardships of the early part of 2009 were reflected in the company’s overall annual loss of $6.5m, compared with a profit of $26.5m for 2008, when market trends were reversed.

Sales may be down by seven per cent for the period, and by more than half for the year, but chief executive Bill Ruprecht clearly believes that the worst is now over and the market is on the way up once more – a notion doubtless reinforced by the £58m taken at Sotheby’s in London on February 3 for Alberto Giacometti’s L’Homme Qui Marche I, now the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction.

And he seemed unfazed by the gap in Sotheby’s auction sales total for 2009 ($2.3bn) and the figure released by rivals Christie’s ($2.9bn), saying Sotheby’s aimed to be the best, not the biggest.

An indication of where Sotheby’s see competition heating up is their decision to highlight the growth in private treaty sales, which increased by 27 per cent in 2009 to $472.6m.

Christie’s have also made their increasing commitment to this area clear recently.

• Meanwhile, James Murdoch, the son of the media mogul Rupert Murdoch, is to stand for election as a director of Sotheby’s.
The auctioneers announced last week that the 37-year-old, who took over from his father as chairman and chief executive of News Corporation in 2007, was unanimously nominated by the 11 other directors to join the Sotheby’s board. Shareholders will now vote for directors at the company’s AGM on May 6 in New York.

It is thought that this development signals Sotheby’s intention to grow further in the Asian market as well as expand their use of digital media and the internet.

Should Mr Murdoch’s slate be accepted, he would join fellow directors Michael Sovern (Chairman, Sotheby’s), the Duke of Devonshire (Deputy Chairman), William Ruprecht (President and Chief Executive Officer), Robin Woodhead (Chairman, Sotheby’s International), John Angelo, Lord Michael Blakenham, Allen Questrom, Don Stewart, Robert Taubman, Diana Taylor and Dennis Weibling on the board.