Rare Book Monthly

Articles - June - 2010 Issue

Sotheby's Briefly the Most Valuable Company on Earth

Sothebychart

Sotheby's closing chart for May 6 showed a high price of $100,000 per share.


By Michael Stillman

The venerable auction house of Sotheby's, which began its life as an auctioneer of books, has been a successful business for centuries. Of course, books now constitute a small part of what is offered, but Sotheby's remains a major force in the field. This past year, Sotheby's has been a particularly good to investors. Its stock price has tripled in the last year, from a low of $10 to $30+.

However, sometimes news is a bit too good to be true, even for a strong company such as Sotheby's. On May 6, the stock market went into a chaotic freefall. Almost a month later, no one really knows why. In a matter of minutes, the Dow Jones average dropped almost 1,000 points, only to regain most of its losses a few minutes later. Charts for several reputable companies showed their stocks trading temporarily for huge losses. Intraday trades at losses greater than 60% were cancelled. However, some substantial companies showed their stocks had dipped as low as a penny, though it's doubtful anyone would have made such a trade. Computerized trading can wreak havoc on orderly markets.

Less known is that a few stocks experienced the exact opposite on that strange day. Enter Sotheby's. The stock opened at $34.61, and dropped as low as $27.85 intraday. However, somewhere along the way, the stock price reached an astronomical high (click the thumbnail image above left to see its daily chart for May 6). At its high point, Sotheby's supposedly reached a price of $100,000 per share. $100,000? At that moment, it was the most valuable company on earth. It dwarfed giants like Microsoft, Google, even Exxon. Heck, its value dwarfed the value of all of the major oil companies combined. Its price would have valued the company at $6.7 trillion, a figure higher than any monetary amount save for the U.S. national debt.

Alas, when things are too good to be true, they are too good to be true. After reaching $100,000, a price it is hard to imagine anyone actually paid, the stock settled back to $33 per share at the day's close. Sotheby's investors who purchased a year ago will again have to be content with a return of 200%, rather than one million percent. Easy come, easy go.

Rare Book Monthly

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