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In the last months of 2016, Sotheby’s earned profits of $65.5m, compared with a loss of $11.2m for the same period in 2015 - a time when the company was scaling back by making voluntary redundancies.

Revenue from overall sales for 2016 was down 29%, at $4.2bn, as Sotheby's and other global auction houses grappled with a tough art market.

However Sotheby's commission margins in the last three months grew to 18% from 12.9% in the same period the year before. Margins for 2016 were 17.1%, compared with 14.3% in 2015.

The results, quoted in dollars as Sotheby’s is listed in the US, covered November sales when the firm sold the David Bowie and Steven Ames collections, the latter including works by Gerhard Richter and Willem de Kooning.

“Our fourth quarter 2016 results came in better than expected largely due to a number of strong fourth-quarter sales,” said chief executive officer, Tad Smith. “These results reflect growing confidence in the market as collectors respond enthusiastically to the great collections and works we secured for sale.”

Other headlines from 2016 included:

  • Asia continues to be a strong source of sales for Sotheby’s. In a year in which Chinese firm Taiking Life Insurance took a 13.5% stake in Sotheby’s, Asian bidders accounted for half of the firm's top 10 sales. 

  • Sotheby’s investment in digital operations led to a rise in online sales, up 20% on the same period a year ago, to $155m.

At the auction house’s New York Contemporary sale in November, nearly 80% of lots were sold. The collection of Steven and Ann Ames netted $131.3m in New York while in London, the artworks collected by David Bowie in his lifetime sold for $41.1m.

Brexit bonus

Commenting on general economic forces, Smith said the uncertainty around Brexit was “a favourable opportunity in our London salesroom for non-British buyers” though tax reforms and regulatory policies of the new US administration “might affect the art market or Sotheby’s”.

All eyes now turn to London this week when Sotheby’s hosts its major sales of Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary art on Wednesday night. A landscape by Gustav Klimt is estimated to sell for more than $45 million.