A contemporary art evening auction at Sotheby's March 2018.

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Private deals at Sotheby’s reached $1.02bn, a 37% increase on the previous year and the highest total in five years for the auction house.

Digital sales, boosted by mobile phone bidding, rose by 24% to $220.4m with 37% of all lots sold in 2018 bought by online buyers.

Sotheby’s reported that more than 50,000-plus lots sold across 400-plus live and online-only auctions during the year, bringing in 11,000 new online-only bidders which helped online-only sales reach $72.1m.

The auction house is also using social media to drive bidders to its auctions and, like Christie’s, has invested heavily in video content.

Views of its videos more than doubled in 2018 to over 28m and it gained 1m new social media followers taking its total audience to more than 2.5m. Sotheby’s said that around 1200 items were consigned through its new ‘online estimate’ platform, resulting in sales totalling $56m in 2018.

Growth categories

Chief executive officer Tad Smith highlighted categories that had reported particularly strong growth during the year including watches (up nearly 57%), wine (up nearly 41%), Old Master paintings (up 33%), contemporary art (up 14%), Chinese works of art (up 14%) and Impressionist and modern art (up nearly 9%).

The focus for the current year, Sotheby’s 275th, includes further focus on profitability.

“With a strong team and the proper infrastructure in place, together with a new executive charged with driving global transformation [Ken Citron], in 2019 we will continue to identify processes that would benefit from automation, simplification, greater alignment with customer needs, and, crucially, cost reduction,” said Smith.

In response to changes at Christie’s, Sotheby’s has increased its buyer’s premium to a level that goes beyond its rival. The changes (see table below) took effect on February 25 in time for the flagship sales of Impressionist and Modern art in London last week.


The new levels of buyer's premium at Sotheby's, Christie's and Phillips.

Sotheby’s has also embarked on a refurbishment and expansion of its New York headquarters. It will unveil the new space in May that will increase its exhibition area from 67,000 to 90,000 sq ft.


A sketch of Sotheby's New York premises. Photo credit OMA New York.

Last month Christie’s reported total sales for 2018 at £5.3bn ($7bn), up 3% on the previous year or up 6% in US dollar terms due to currency fluctuations.

All sales figures include buyer’s premium and fees.