Near-record $7.9bn in sales marks second strong year in row for Sotheby’s

Sotheby’s sold a near-record of almost $8bn (£6.3bn) of art and other collectables last year, including a Pablo Picasso masterpiece of his “golden muse” that fetched $139m.

The auction house, founded in London 280 years ago and now headquartered in New York, announced sales collectively worth $7.9bn in the 2023 calendar year.

That’s almost as much as the record $8bn achieved in 2022, and “40% above 2019 pre-pandemic levels”. The Covid-19 pandemic boosted all auction houses as it led to a concentration of wealth among the already very rich, who, unable to spend money in the real world, turned to collecting and online auctions.

Brooke Lampley, the global chair of Sotheby’s, said 2023 sales were boosted by a series of “extraordinary collections” that came up for auction during the year.

They included the collection of Emily Fisher Landau, one of the greatest art collectors of the 20th century who died in March 2023. The sale of her collection in November 2023 fetched $424.7m, making it the most valuable collection devoted to a female collector. Her 1932 Picasso masterpiece Femme à la montre (Woman with a Watch) sold for $139m, the second highest price ever achieved for the artist.

Freddie Mercury’s Tiffany & Co silver moustache comb. Photograph: Daniel Leal/AFP/Getty Images

An auction of items once owned by the Queen frontman Freddie Mercury sold for a total of £39.9m, far more than the £7.6-11.3m estimated by Sotheby’s and making it the highest total for any celebrity sale. The auction in September stretched to more than 30,000 objects that Mercury had bequeathed to his longtime friend Mary Austin.

One of the collection’s smallest items, a Tiffany & Co comb used by Mercury to tame his trademark moustache measuring less than 3 inches long, sold for £152,400 – more than 250 times its original estimate. A stained Adidas shoulder bag that belonged to the singer sold for £10,800, far more than its £150 estimate.

“These collections are not just accumulations of objects, but true stories and legacies, testament to the remarkable spirit and vision of each collector,” Lampley said. “The lion’s share of these great single-owner sales are coming to the market as they pass from one generation to another. This next generation are embarking on their own collecting careers – making for exciting conversations as we look to support their journey, now and in the future.”