More on Sotheby's Sale

The NY Times just posted an interesting article on the purchase of Sotheby's along with a bit of rationale on to why. Some of the reasons included not being a public company with stockholders and have more flexibility in strategic planning and an owner who is a billionaire and collector may have more of a passion for the investment.

The NY Times reports on the sale
In recent years, the competition between the world’s two largest auction houses, Sotheby’s and Christie’s, has seemed at times like a bit of an unfair fight.

Sotheby’s, which is publicly traded, has lost out to its privately held archrival for several headline-grabbing consignments. Last year, Christie’s sold the collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller for $835 million, the highest-grossing auction ever of a private collection. In 2017, Christie’s sold Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” for $450.3 million, the highest auction price ever for a work of art.

Both auctions were underpinned by financial guarantees arranged by Christie’s, which since 1998 has belonged to a holding company owned by the French billionaire François-Henri Pinault.

Wendy Goldsmith, a London-based art adviser and former head of 19th-century European art at Christie’s, noted the advantage gained by an auction house owned by a wealthy individual. “If you wanted to get something done,” she said, “you went to the man with deep pockets.”

On Monday, Sotheby’s moved to level the playing field, agreeing to be acquired by a billionaire of its own, the French-Israeli telecommunications entrepreneur Patrick Drahi, in a deal worth $3.7 billion. The purchase, by Mr. Drahi’s BidFair USA, returns the only publicly traded major auction house to private ownership after 31 years on the New York Stock Exchange.

About $2.66 billion of the purchase price will be paid in cash, with Sotheby’s shareholders getting $57 per share of their common stock. That is a 61 percent premium over the stock’s closing price on Friday. Sotheby’s shares jumped 58 percent in trading on Monday after the deal was announced.

“This acquisition will provide Sotheby’s with the opportunity to accelerate the successful program of growth initiatives of the past several years in a more flexible private environment,” Tad Smith, the chief executive of Sotheby’s, said in a statement.

Flexibility is something Sotheby’s has sorely lacked. As a publicly traded company, it has had to justify every business decision and explain every market fluctuation to shareholders on a quarterly basis. That is a challenge for a business that relies on seasonal revenue and is strongly dependent on the quality of consignments in any given sale.

Patrick Drahi, a French-Israeli telecommunications entrepreneur and founder of the Altice Group, a cable and mobile telecoms company.CreditPhilippe Wojazer/Reuters
Guy Jennings, a former deputy chairman of Sotheby’s Europe who is now managing director of the Fine Art Group, an advisory company based in London, said that having to answer to shareholders had consistently left Sotheby’s lagging behind Christie’s.

“They’ve not clawed back any ground,” he said.

Sotheby’s had $6.4 billion in total sales last year, fueled in part by a 37 percent increase in private transactions. It had net income of $108.6 million, down from $118.8 million the previous year. Christie’s had $7 billion in total sales in 2018. As a private company, it does not report profits or losses.

It may have regularly trailed Christie’s in recent years, but Sotheby’s has had its moments. In 2017, it achieved an auction record of $110.5 million for a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat, and it set a salesroom high of $110.7 million last month for a work by Claude Monet. Last year, its auction in Paris of the collection of Pierre BergĂ©, the former partner of Yves Saint Laurent, raised $32.4 million, more than four times the presale high estimate.

Mr. Drahi, who founded the telecom company Altice in the Netherlands in 2001, said in a statement that he remained “100 percent committed” to the telecom and media industries and that he was honored the Sotheby’s board had embraced his offer.

“As a longtime client and lifetime admirer of the company, I am acquiring Sotheby’s together with my family,” said Mr. Drahi, who is known as a collector of Modern and Impressionist works.

Mr. Drahi added that he was making the investment with a “very long-term perspective” and that he did not anticipate any changes in the company’s strategy.

The deal comes about six years after Daniel Loeb, whose hedge fund, Third Point, holds a stake in Sotheby’s, called for the resignation of Bill Ruprecht, the auction house’s chief executive at the time.

“We have heard many excuses — but no good reasons — why Sotheby’s competitive position is deteriorating, such as: ‘Christie’s is buying market share and making uneconomic deals to make headlines,’ or ‘Christie’s is private and doesn’t have to disclose its guarantees,’” Mr. Loeb, a member of the Sotheby’s board, wrote in a letter urging Mr. Ruprecht’s ouster and bemoaning a share price that was then stalled at about $51.

Mr. Smith, a former chief executive of the Madison Square Garden company, succeeded Mr. Ruprecht as chief executive in 2015, but profitability has remained a continuing challenge for Sotheby’s. In 2016, the company tried to solidify its share of the top end of the market by paying up to $85 million to acquire Art Agency, Partners, a boutique art advisory firm. But at $35.38, its closing price on Friday, the company’s stock had fallen well below its 2013 level.

“It was ripe for picking,” Ms. Goldsmith said.

Mr. Loeb said in a statement that he was “pleased to see Sotheby’s pass into such capable hands.”

Art work packed in a crate arrived at Sotheby’s from Paris in February. Being publicly traded gave the auction house less flexibility than its privately held rival, Christie’s.
Stephen Speranza for The New York Times

Mr. Drahi was born in Casablanca, Morocco. His parents were math teachers, and he showed an early aptitude for numbers. The family moved to France when he was a teenager, and he attended prestigious universities with the goal of becoming an electrical engineer.

Soon after joining the Dutch electronics giant Philips, he abandoned a traditional corporate career for the less-predictable life of a telecom entrepreneur. He drew inspiration from American moguls like John C. Malone who made their fortunes in cable television. Mr. Drahi founded a regional cable company in France that he later sold to an arm of Mr. Malone’s empire, using the proceeds to found Altice.

He has continued to pursue ambitious deals since then. Under Mr. Drahi, Altice made expensive, often debt-fueled bids for cable assets around the world, including HOT in Israel and Suddenlink in the United States. In 2014, he defeated a stalwart of French industry, Martin Bouygues, to acquire Vivendi’s SFR division in a deal valued at 17 billion euros (about $19 billion at current exchange rates).

Altice gained a new level of prominence in 2015 amid speculation that it was preparing to bid for Time Warner Cable after regulators blocked Comcast’s proposed takeover of the company. The price turned out to be too high for Mr. Drahi, and Charter Communications wound up buying Time Warner Cable.

Altice made a major cable acquisition in the United States later that year, leading a $17.7 billion takeover of Cablevision. Mr. Drahi merged the company with another Altice-owned cable operator and rebranded the operation as Altice USA, which acquired the online news network Cheddar for $200 million in April.

In addition to a penchant for buying undervalued assets, Mr. Drahi has a reputation for cutting costs. How he might apply that practice to Sotheby’s remains to be seen. Also unclear is whether Mr. Smith was party to the takeover or will become a casualty of it. He has a connection to Mr. Drahi through the Dolan family, which sold Cablevision to Altice.

Mr. Drahi is largely unknown in the art world. The pieces he collects typically sell for less than $5 million, a far cry from the sky-high prices that dominate the contemporary art market.

“Most people don’t seem to know who he is,” said the art dealer Brett Gorvy, a former Christie’s executive who operates galleries in Geneva, London and New York.“He’s not a Pinault in terms of his level of buying.”

It is perhaps not surprising then that Mr. Drahi’s purchase of Sotheby’s mystified some art executives.

“Is it a real estate deal?” asked Mr. Jennings of the Fine Art Group. “Is it prestige? Is he taking on Pinault?”
Source: The New York Times 

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