Sotheby's - Going, going....gone?

What will happen to the world's fourth-oldest auction house now Dan Loeb is on board?

by Andrew Saunders
Last Updated: 12 Oct 2015

Formative years

In March 1744, a London bookseller named Samuel Baker held his first auction in Covent Garden, and the business that would become Sotheby's was founded.

In 1823, it sold Napoleon's library from his exile on Saint Helena, but it wasn't until the early 20th century that Sotheby's moved into fine art, selling a painting by Frans Hals for 9,000 guineas in 1913.

Thus began its historic rivalry (some would say duopoly) with swanky London neighbour Christie's, both battling for the privilege of easing the cash flow of hard-up aristos. 'Christie's is a firm of gentlemen trying to be auctioneers; Sotheby's is a firm of auctioneers trying to be gentlemen' went the old gag.

Fast-forward to 1983, six years after it crossed the pond and floated on the NYSE, and US shopping mall magnate Alfred Taubman rescued an ailing Sotheby's for £80m, saving it from a hostile takeover. He turned the firm around and took it public again five years later.

Recent history

Apart from a blip during the 2008 crash, Sotheby's has had a respectable 21st century. Edvard Munch's The Scream fetched a then-record $119.9m in 2012, and a surge in interest from newly moneyed Chinese buyers has also helped. A 500-year-old Ming Dynasty 'chicken cup' sold in Hong Kong in April for a whopping $36m.

But the heat is on, because old rival Christie's has taken the lead. It has outsold Sotheby's at auction two years running, last year by a hefty $800m margin ($5.9bn to $5.1bn). Activist investor and art collector Dan Loeb (of Yahoo fame) has acquired a 9.6% stake, calling Sotheby's 'an old master in desperate need of restoration' and accusing its boss - the haughtily monickered William Ruprecht - of 'living a life of luxury at the expense of shareholders'.

Who's the boss?

Having initially met Loeb's claim with gung-ho accusations of greenmail and opportunism, last month Sotheby's abruptly caved in, giving him and two supporters seats on the board. But Loeb may find his victory short-lived; as one commentator noted: 'In a fight between a hedge-fund manager and an art dealer, I'd back the art dealer every time.' Neither trade is noted for a scrupulous regard for truth.

Don't mention

The price-fixing scandal. In 2002, Sotheby's 78-year-old then-owner Alfred Taubman did 10 months in jail and was fined £5.3m for fixing art prices, shopped by arch-rival and alleged co-conspirator Christie's. The scandal cost the two firms $512m in compensation. Many believe the fineart market is still rigged.

Vital statistics

Revenues: $853.7m
Profit: $130m
Employees: 1,577
- All figures 2013

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