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Having identified key growth categories as Contemporary, Impressionist and Modern art, as well as Asian art and jewellery, they are in the process of completing a $14.8m restructure to target these areas of business and new geographical markets.

The strategy, approved in July, has meant a raft of redundancies across US and UK operations, accounting for the bulk of the costs, as Sotheby's expand their influence in Russia, the Middle East and the Far East, as well as extending their interests in the private sales sector and building internet sales in conjunction with eBay.

The programme should be completed by the end of the year.

Guarantees Extended

The move to increase pressure on what are already the most competitive areas of the global auction market is reflected in the decision taken on August 22 to double the limit on the level of outstanding guarantees at any one time from $300m to $600m.

This has been done against a background of more favourable credit arrangements and liquidity, which at the end of September stood at $420m of global cash or equivalents - at the same time outstanding direct guarantees were around $305m.

It is not clear how much this more aggressive overall strategy has been influenced by hedge fund billionaire Daniel Loeb and his fellow Third Point appointees, who dropped a legal challenge to the direction of the company after winning seats on the board earlier in the year.

Intense competition for consignments in comparatively narrow fields inevitably leads to lower commission margins, and Sotheby's have attempted to offset this in recent years by increasing charges for buyers as well as issuing a higher proportion of their own guarantees rather than sharing commissions with those prepared to issue third-party guarantees on their behalf.

The latest set of figures show that despite close to $35m worth of one-off costs related to the restructure and special charges linked to the Third Point legal dispute among other issues, net profits remain stable at around 7.5% thanks to a 14% rise in turnover year on year for the first nine months of 2014 to $586.8m.

Private sales totals are down for the period - "largely due to a significant number of high-value transactions completed in the second and third quarters of 2013 that were not repeated in the current year", say Sotheby's.