A book sale in progress at Messrs Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge of Wellington Street, 1888.
Sotheby's predecessor, Baker and Leigh, was founded in London on 11 March 1744, when Samuel Baker presided over the disposal of "several hundred scarce and valuable" books from the library of Rt Hon Sir John Stanley Bt., of Alderley. Three Swedish auction houses are even older (Stockholms Auktionsverk, Göteborgs Auktionsverk, Uppsala auktionskammare) and Sotheby's great rival in London and then New York, Christie's, dates from 1759 or shortly after. The current business dates back to 1804, when two of the partners of the original business (Leigh and John Sotheby) left to set up their own book dealership. The library Napoleon took with him into exile at St Helena, as well as the library collections of John Wilkes, Benjamin Heywood Bright and the Dukes of Devonshire and of Buckingham (both related to George Leigh) were sold through Samuel Baker's auctions.
After Baker's death in 1778, his estate was divided between Leigh and John Sotheby. George Leigh died unmarried in 1816, but not before endeavouring to secure his succession by recruiting Samuel E Leigh into the business. Under the Sotheby family, the auction house extended its activities to auctioning prints, medals, and coins. John Wilkinson, Sotheby's Senior Accountant, became the company's new CEO. The business did not seek to auction fine arts in general until much later, their first major success in this field being the sale of a Frans Hals painting for nine thousand guineas as late as 1913.
In 1917, Sotheby's relocated from 13 Wellington Street to 34-35 New Bond Street, which remains as its London base to this day. They soon came to rival Christie's as leaders of the London auction market, which had become the most important for art. In 1955, Sotheby's opened an office at Bowling Green, New York City. In 1964, Sotheby's purchased Parke-Bernet, then the largest auctioneer of fine art in the United States. In the following year, Sotheby's moved to 980 Madison Avenue, New York. With international popularity of fine art auction growing, Sotheby's opened offices in Paris and Los Angeles in 1967, became the first auction house to operate in Hong Kong in 1973, and Moscow in 1988.
Sotheby's became a U.K. public company in 1977. A 25 percent drop from the 1980–81 record of $610 million in sales contributed to Sotheby's decision to relocate its North American headquarters from Madison Avenue to a former cigar factory at 1334 York Avenue, New York, in 1982. The auction house closed its Madison Avenue galleries at East 76th Street. The Los Angeles galleries were sold and auctions of West Coast material moved to New York.
In the following year, a group of investors (such as American millionaire Alfred Taubman) purchased and privatized Sotheby's. Sotheby's was initially incorporated as Sotheby's Holdings, Inc. in Michigan in August 1983. Taubman took Sotheby's public in 1988, listing the company's shares on the New York Stock Exchange, making Sotheby's the oldest publicly traded company on the NYSE under the ticker symbol "BID." In June 2006, Sotheby's Holdings, Inc. reincorporated in the State of Delaware and was renamed Sotheby's shortly after.
With private transactions constituting an essential and increasingly profitable business segment, through the years Sotheby's has bought art galleries and helped dealers finance purchases. It has also gone into partnership with dealers on private sales. In 1990, Sotheby's teamed up with dealer William Acquavella, to form Acquavella Modern Art, a Nevada general partnership and a subsidiary of Sotheby's Holding Company. The subsidiary paid $143 million for the contents of the Pierre Matisse Gallery in Manhattan, which included about 2,300 works by such artists as Miró, Jean Dubuffet, Alberto Giacometti, and Marc Chagall, and began selling the works both at auction and privately. In 1996, Sotheby's acquired Andre Emmerich Gallery to operate a division called Emmerich/Sotheby's, and in 1997 it purchased a 50% interest in Deitch Projects. As a consequence, the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, the main beneficiary of the artists' estates, as well as the estates of Morris Louis and Milton Avery announced that they would not renew their Emmerich contracts. That decision came right after it was disclosed that Sotheby's had decided to close Emmerich's prime space at 41 East 57th Street, and that its artists would be handled out of Deitch Projects. Sotheby's subsequently closed Andre Emmerich in 1998 and later sold its share in Deitch Projects back to Jeffrey Deitch. In 2006, Sotheby's acquired a Dutch dealership, Noortman Master Paintings, from its owner, Robert Noortman, for $82.5 million ($56.5 million worth of Sotheby's stock and assumption of more than $26 million in gallery debt, including $11.7 million owed to the auction house). Sotheby's and Noortman had collaborated before in 1995, when the sales of Dutch plastic millionaire Joost Ritman were divided between the two companies.
Already in 1990, Sotheby's New York had successfully lobbied for a zoning change permitting the construction of a 27-story residential tower above the five-story headquarters; this expansion was never realised. Instead, Sotheby's throughout the 1990s expressed interest in sites that ranged from the old Alexander's building on East 59th Street to the New York Coliseum site on Columbus Circle, and was even considering moving into the old B. Altman building on Fifth Avenue. The company eventually bought its York Avenue building for $11 million in 2000 and completed a $140 million expansion and renovation in 2001, adding six floors and 240,000 square feet. The renovation added the capability to store works on the same premises as the specialist departments, Sotheby's Wine and the former Bid (an American contemporary restaurant and later bistro), which was closed due to poor attendance. The company sold the building in 2002 for $175 million. In May 2007, Sotheby's opened an office in Moscow in response to rapidly growing interest among Russian buyers in the international art market and held sales in Qatar in 2009.
As many industries took a blow from the economic crisis of 2008, the art market also saw a contraction. In international figures, art prices fell by 7.5% in Q1 of 2008 in comparison to the previous quarter. In September and October 2008, major auction houses saw a sharp decline in sales: artprice.com, the world leader in art market information, coined the term "Black October." Sotheby's bought-in rate was 27%, Christie's was 45% and Phillips de Pury's was 46%. However, the total values of global and United States Fine Art auction sales were USD$8.3 billion and USD$2.9 billion, respectively. In 2009, art collector Steven A. Cohen built a 6 percent stake in the auction house for his hedge fund SAC Capital Advisors.
As of 2012, the firm has an annual revenue of approximately US$831.8 million and offices on Manhattan's York Avenue and London's New Bond Street. This position has been achieved through natural growth, acquisitions (most notably the 1964 purchase of the United States' largest auctioneer of fine art, Parke-Bernet), and management during the cyclical "art recessions" of the 20th century.
In 2011, Noortman's Amsterdam space was closed and the gallery moved to London. Two years later, Sotheby's closed Noortmans, after having written down $8.3 million of inventory and started selling off lower-valued works of art through other auction houses. As of 2011, Sotheby's is present in over 90 locations in 40 countries with ten salesrooms. In 2012, the company signed a 10-year joint-venture agreement to form Sotheby's (Beijing) Auction Co. Ltd., the first international auction house in China; under the agreement, it invested $1.2 million to take an 80 percent stake in the venture with state-owned
Beijing Gehua Cultural Development Group.
Sotheby's shares a rivalry with Christie's for the position of the world's preeminent fine art auctioneer, a title of much subjectivity. In August 2004, Sotheby's introduced an online system – MySotheby's – allowing clients to track lots and create "wishlists" that could be automatically updated as new works became available. Sotheby's also created the BIDnow service, which allows bidders to bid real-time online while watching the broadcast auctions, with the exception of Wine auctions. LiveBid is Sotheby's online bidding system exclusively for wine auctions. In the meantime, income from classic auctioneering has fallen, as Sotheby's reported a decrease of 42% in net income in the first half of 2012.
As well as numerous high-profile real life auctions being held at Sotheby's, the auctioneers has also been used in various films, including the 1983 James Bond film Octopussy in which Bond (played by Roger Moore) unsuccessfully tried to bid for a rare Fabergé egg, which he had cleverly exchanged for a fake that was finally sold to the villainous Afghan prince, Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan).
In February 2015 Sotheby's acquired a 25% stake in classic and vintage automobile auctioneer RM Auctions.
On 17 March 2015, it was announced that Tad Smith, former president and chief executive of New York's Madison Square Garden, would succeed William F. Ruprecht as CEO of Sotheby's. Smith had no experience in the auction industry and oversaw a doubling of profits during his time at Madison Square Garden. In 2015 the auction house's longest serving auctioneer, David Redden, and Vice-Chairman retired.
On 25 January 2018, Sotheby's acquired AI company Thread Genius for an undisclosed amount.
In 2019, Sotheby's announced a redesign and expansion of its New York headquarters on the Upper East Side that is being led by the designer Shohei Shigematsu of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA). The exhibition space there will grow to over 90,000 square feet from 67,000, and the project will include the addition of several new galleries.