By Spencer Feingold
Monday marked 275 years since the first auctioneer’s hammer came down at a Sotheby’s sale. Held in London by the firm’s founder, Samuel Baker, the auction included a cache of rare books, which were knocked down at £826.
Nearly three centuries later, the firm is one of the largest and most recognized fine art auction houses in the world, with annual sales exceeding $4 billion from its 80 global offices.
“We like to think of Sotheby’s as a 275-years old start up,” the company’s CEO Tad Smith told Cheddar Monday, citing innovation and creativity as the keys to the firm's successful growth.
As the company looks to its future, it is innovating again by expanding its online operations and democratizing its art auctions.
In 2018, buyers online spent $220.4 million, an increase of 24 percent from the year prior. The sales included live auction items purchased by online bidders, online-only sales, and sales from the firm’s retail websites. Of all items sold last year, 37 percent were purchased online and 64 percent of new customers bid online.
“It is much easier to do business with us than it every has been ー you can do it on your mobile phone,” Smith said.
Sotheby's is also examining the role blockchain could play in its business model.
"Having an immutable database record that is encrypted to preserve the history of any particular object around the world, that is going to have huge value to us," Smith said.
Furthermore, Sotheby's hopes to dispel the elite and stuffy stereotypes attached to art auctions.
And while the unique and expensive sales garner headlines ー the firm recently sold pearls owned by Marie Antoinette for $42.7 million ー Sotheby’s has already brought buyers and sellers together at lower price points.
More than half of the items sold at auction in 2018 were under $10,000 and 10 percent were under $1,000, according to Smith.
"One hundred times more people could be doing business with us than are because they think you need a million dollars to buy a Picasso,” Smith said. “The truth is ... the vast majority of things that we sell are very accessible.”
In the last 275 years, however, Sotheby's is best known for it record-breaking auctions, such as the $119.9 million sale of Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream in 2012. The company has also earned a reputation for its steadfast efforts to preserve and sell fine art ー for example, the company turned its London basement into a bomb shelter so auctions could continue during World War II.
Sotheby’s is also the oldest traded company on the New York Stock Exchange. Smith rang in trading Monday morning to celebrate the company's birthday.
For full interview click here.