Spring starts slowly for Sotheby's

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SOTHEBY'S Holdings, the New York-based auction house, reported a pre-tax loss of dollars 8.5m (pounds 5.6m) in the first three months of 1994, the same as last year.

Total first-quarter sales improved to dollars 161.3m from a previous dollars 129.6m. But net losses were dollars 5.1m, compared with dollars 5.2m during the same period last year.

The first quarter is historically a loss-making period for Sotheby's. However, two important New York auctions of contemporary art, held last week, suggest that the current quarter may also fall short of expectations.

The spring art auction season opened with a sale by Christies on Tuesday, followed two nights later by Sotheby's. But the anticipated rebound in the art market failed to materialise, with 32 lots out of 76 failing to sell at Christies

The Sotheby's sale featured higher-quality works, but this too proved disappointing. Eighteen lots out of 63 went unsold, and prices were generally lower than expected.

Among the lots that did not reach their reserve price was the 1959 abstract painting Highway by Jasper Johns, which was withdrawn after bidding came to a halt dollars 800,000 short of the reserve price of dollars 8m. Black Flowers, a 1961 painting by Roy Lichtenstein, also failed to find a buyer.

The Sotheby's sale generated only dollars 20.4m, compared with its pre-sale estimate of dollars 31-dollars 42m. Tonight Christies will hold an auction of impressionist and modern paintings, including Picasso's Violon, Bouteille et Verre, painted in 1913. Analysts are anxiously awaiting the results of this auction, and an impressionist and modern sale at Sotheby's tomorrow.

Last year Sotheby's made profits of dollars 19.3m. In 1989, at the height of the 1980s art boom, it recorded net income of dollars 113m.