Due to a reshuffling of Hong Kong sales and windfall from a tax benefit, Sotheby’s posted a $23.5 million net loss in its third quarter, up 57 percent from a year ago, the auction house announced this morning in its quarterly earnings call. The net loss of $0.45 per share beat expectations that foresaw a $0.67 per share drop, and the revenue total of $171 million was ahead of the anticipated figure of $110.9 million
During the call to shareholders, Sotheby’s chief executive officer Tad Smith hastened to add that this quarter is typically the slowest of the year, one that accounted for less than 5 percent of total sales last year. But he added that, nine months into 2017, total consolidated sales—which combine auctions, private sales, and inventory sales—are up 13 percent.
After Smith announced that “we’re going to be relatively brief with you this morning,” the call stretched to well over an hour, as an extended question-and-answer portion pushed Sotheby’s executives to discuss the ways that auction houses are adapting to the political climate, and how they would benefit from the recently proposed U.S. tax-code overhaul.
The third quarter for Sotheby’s encompasses the slow summer months, when the art market catches its breath, but this year’s calendar allowed for the fall sales in Hong Kong to be included in the financial period, adding $82 million in net income to the books. Excluding that and focusing on what Smith called an “apples-to-apples” comparison, net auction sales were up 8 percent.
Later in the call, Sotheby’s chief financial officer Mike Goss added that, while the change of timing benefits Sotheby’s today, the fourth quarter to come will be negatively affected by not having the Hong Kong sales included.
Other factors contributed to the slight uptick in returns during this quiet quarter, such as the matter of what Smith called ” an unusual $7.4 million tax benefit.” As Goss later explained, in 2013 Sotheby’s established a reserve to defend against a potential tax liability. Now that this one-time liability is beyond the statute of limitations to challenge, the house reversed the reserve. Such an action provided a one-time discrete cash infusion that, while relatively insignificant, made a ripple in this most uneventful of quarters, and was responsible for a $0.14 per share benefit.
Also impacting the quarter was the receipt of cash following the April sale of the Pink Star, a coveted diamond that went for $71 million during a jewelry auction in Hong Kong.
As the prepared comments wound down, Smith was cautiously optimistic in addressing the quarter, noting that both sales in Asia and sales of contemporary art are up from a year ago—at this point last year, both sectors were trending down from the year prior.
During the question-and-answer session, it was pointed out that last year’s quarter three call took place the day before the 2016 presidential elections. In the wake of that, Sotheby’s attempted to ascertain what impact the surprise outcome would have on business. The initial judgement of the election result, Smith noted in the call, was that despite a “discomfort” with the politics of Donald Trump, there was the prospect that the new president could enact policies that would benefit the tax implications involved in the high end of the art market, spurring on sales.
“There was a lot of uncertainty, but there was a breath of fresh air and you saw that in the marketplace,” Smith said, describing the mood immediately following the election.
Yet Smith noted that, apart from a few executive orders, the president has accomplished little in the way of legislation, and “a lot of those policies haven’t really made progress yet, [so] the trade situation remains a little bit unclear.”
To that end, Sotheby’s brass were hesitant to address questions pertaining to the proposed tax plan, as its passage remains up in the air. But they acknowledged that phasing out the estate tax could impact when collectors choose to sell work late in life, in order to secure the most funds for their heirs. As it stands now, a collector has to will work to heirs and have them sell it after they die—if they sell it before death, the proceeds from the sale get heavily taxed.
But under the proposed GOP tax plan, “If you’re a 75-year-old person who wants to buy a home, you can sell a picture without any worry, because it has no lesser value than if you were to sell it after death,” Goss explained.
Smith ended his remarks by noting that work to be auctioned later this month at the evening sales in New York is on view at the York Avenue headquarters. He added, “You should definitely check out Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari on the way in.”