Private deal for Sotheby’s pushes art market ‘underground’
Like masterpieces by Van Gogh, Picasso and Rothko, the storied auction house Sotheby’s is slipping into wealthy private hands, in a $2.7 billion deal that will reshape the global art market.
Billionaire Patrick Drahi agreed to buy the 275-year-old firm, ending Sotheby’s three decades as a public company. Drahi, a disciple of media mogul John Malone, is seizing on the upheavals that have shaken the centuries-old auction model.
The deal announced Monday pulls the inner workings of the art market even deeper into the shadows. As a private company, Sotheby’s will no longer be required to disclose quarterly results, which had put it at a competitive disadvantage compared with arch-rival Christie’s, owned by another French billionaire, Francois Pinault. Those periodic reports also provided a “public bellwether” for the art market with insight into margins, executive compensation, strategy, capital allocation and the stock’s reaction to major economic and political forces, said Evan Beard, an art-service executive at Bank of America Corp.
“That all goes underground now,” Beard said. “It’s a transparency shift.”
Investors including Dan Loeb’s Third Point hedge fund, Sotheby’s second-biggest shareholder, will receive $57 in cash for each share of Sotheby’s common stock, the New York-based auction house said Monday in a statement. The offer represents a 61% premium to Friday’s closing price.
Sotheby’s shares had dropped 40% in the past year as the company grappled with higher costs and shrinking margins even as masterpieces and contemporary works set auction records. Drahi, 55, is chairman of Altice Europe NV, a publicly traded telecommunications firm with more than 30 million customers. He’s worth $8.6 billion and the sixth-richest person in France, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
“It’s a trophy acquisition,” said Franck Prazan, owner of Applicat-Prazan gallery, who was a managing director at Christie’s France when Pinault bought the company. “These auction houses aren’t really meant to be publicly traded, and they’re better off being owned by a personal fortune. The profitability of a publicly traded auction house is extremely volatile.”
Bold dealmaking is well in character for Drahi, who single-handedly built a global telecom behemoth in the span of two decades through relentless acquisitions and an embrace of debt. The Moroccan-born Frenchman, who’s also an Israeli citizen, is said to have proposed to his wife within an hour of meeting her. He harbored ambitions of one day running a global company. He quit his first job with a Dutch satellite firm and founded his own cable businesses with the help of a student loan.
In 2016, in a $17.8 billion deal, Altice acquired Cablevision Systems Corp., where Sotheby’s Chief Executive Officer Tad Smith honed his managerial skills before taking the reins at Madison Square Garden Co.
Altice Europe’s main asset is SFR, a French telecommunications company. The business is finally returning to growth after years of customer losses amid cutthroat competition. Shares of Altice Europe have advanced about 70% this year, though they remain more than 50% below their 2015 peak.
Drahi’s takeover would mean that French citizens will own the world’s two major auction houses. Pinault, the founder of Paris-based luxury goods giant Kering SA, initially acquired a stake in Christie’s two decades ago from British billionaire Joe Lewis.
“It was ripe for Sotheby’s to go private,” said former Christie’s executive Philip Hoffman, now CEO of the Fine Art Group. “Christie’s has more advantages being run privately and not having public quarterly reporting that puts pressure on their ability to do deals.”
The branding potential of Sotheby’s had attracted investors including Loeb, whose Third Point hedge fund is the second-largest shareholder, with a 14.3% stake.
Loeb joined the board in 2014 after a bitter proxy fight, and senior managers were replaced soon after. Investments in technology and advisory services followed — as well as significant milestones, such as the sale of a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting for $110 million in 2017. Still, Sotheby’s has consistently trailed Christie’s in annual sales.
“Today’s sale price affirms the value we saw when we first invested in Sotheby’s, and rewards long-term investors like Third Point who believed in its potential,” Loeb said Monday in a email.