Middling performance of such auctions throughout 2023, with high costs and some sales coming in below their estimates, made a “sure thing” look less so

Selling prominent single-owner collections has long been seen as a key piece of strategy at the three major auction houses. It is for this reason that Christie’s and Sotheby’s (and to a lesser extent, Phillips) regularly compete to guarantee sums from tens of millions to hundreds of millions of dollars to secure valuable consignments from significant living collectors and the estates of storied patrons.

But results in 2023 may give auction house decision-makers pause on this front, at least temporarily. Based on the conventional wisdom, offering major single-owner collections should have been a sure bet for the Big Three houses during a shaky, uncertain year of business. In hindsight, however, there is relatively little evidence that these big-name sales drastically outperformed those assembled from multiple owners with less fanfare, calling into question the sizeable upfront investment required to secure the former in the first place.

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