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Turnover was up 87 per cent on the first quarter for 2009 at $101.9m, with net losses – typical for the first quarter – at $2.2m compared to $34.5m for January to March last year.

Again, increased auction commissions contributed to the performance, although the sliding scale of buyer’s premiums means that yield per lot declines in percentage terms as hammer prices recover.

The company also did not have to pay out significant restructuring sums, as they did last year on staff redundancies. And there were savings too on their dealer-related operations.

At $208.1m, the London Contemporary and Impressionist sales brought in two and a half times the sum they did in early 2009.

With last week’s Contemporary and Modern sales in New York also showing a marked pick-up on last year, industry analysts will be looking out for signs of the return of guarantees in any significant form.

Since being stung with a multi-million dollar ‘hangover’ from guarantees set before – but exercised after – the collapse of the Contemporary market in the autumn of 2008, Sotheby’s and Christie’s all but abandoned the standard and advanced guarantee.

Instead they have tended to opt for the safer, but less profitable third-party or irrevocable bid guarantee, which offsets the risk to a third party, such as a rich collector, but cuts them a slice of the commissions where another buyer outbids them.

Christie’s adopted guarantees for the record-breaking Brody sale last week, and the pressure will undoubtedly be on Sotheby’s to look once again at guarantees in the competition for top consignments.

By Ivan Macquisten