Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 July 2019

Billionaire Patrick Drahi snaps up Sotheby's in $3.7bn deal

The US multinational returns to private ownership after 31 years as a public company

Sotheby's has signed a definitive merger agreement to be acquired by BidFair USA, an entity wholly owned by media and telecom entrepreneur as well as art collector, Patrick Drahi (right).  EPA/JUSTIN LANE
Sotheby's has signed a definitive merger agreement to be acquired by BidFair USA, an entity wholly owned by media and telecom entrepreneur as well as art collector, Patrick Drahi (right).  EPA/JUSTIN LANE

Patrick Drahi agreed on Monday to buy Sotheby's in a deal worth $3.7 billion, marking the art auction house's return to private ownership after 31 years.

The acquisition will allow the billionaire art collector to join rival Francois Pinault, of France, at the top of the art world.

Mr Pinault's holding company Artemis owns a majority stake in Sotheby's rival Christie's.

French LVMH chairman and chief executive Bernard Arnault is equally active in the arts world through his Louis Vuitton foundation.

Mr Drahi's expansion in the US also has echoes of former Vivendi boss Jean-Marie Messier, who helped the company move into entertainment through the Universal business.

Sotheby's said it would be acquired by BidFair USA, an acquisition vehicle set up by Mr Drahi, which had offered $57 in cash per share.

The offer represented a premium of 61 per cent on Sotheby's closing price on Friday, and gives Sotheby's a market capitalisation of $2.6bn.

Founded in London in 1744, Sotheby's had the distinction of being the oldest company listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

The auction house became a destination for new wealth created on Wall Street, in Silicon Valley and around the world, art experts said.

As a public company, Sotheby's in many ways operated at a competitive disadvantage to Christie's, which was already private, experts said.

"Now the company can become more flexible and nimble as a privately held enterprise, and it will be interesting to see the changes that will be made," said Abigail Asher, a partner at international art consultancy Guggenheim Asher Associates.

The art world has been a favourite in recent times for investors looking to make extra returns in a world of ultra-low interest rates, with the prices of many works of art steadily increasing.

A report published by Swiss bank UBS and Art Basel in March said that the global art market had another boom year in 2018.

Mr Drahi said he would be funding the takeover through financing arranged by French bank BNP Paribas and by equity from his own funds.

He has also been selling non-core assets in recent years to ease concerns over the debt levels of his businesses.

Mr Drahi said he would not sell shares in his Altice Europe business, but would be cashing in a small stake in his Altice USA division. Shares in Altice USA fell about 2 per cent on Monday.

"I am making this investment for my family, through my personal holding, with a very long-term perspective," he said.

Mr Drahi said the takeover also showed how his family had been settling down in the US.

About five years ago Sotheby's ended a long-running fight with activist investor Daniel Loeb's hedge fund Third Point, by asking him and two associates to join Sotheby's board.

Mr Loeb, a prominent art collector, on Monday praised the sale.

The 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", he said.

BNP Paribas and Morgan Stanley advised Mr Drahi, while LionTree Advisors worked on behalf of Sotheby's.

After its founding, Sotheby's expanded overseas in the 20th century, moving to New York in 1955, Asia and then France in 2001.

Famous items it has sold include the collections of the late Duchess of Windsor, the personal collection of artist Andy Warhol and Edvard Munch's painting The Scream in 2012.

Updated: June 18, 2019 12:28 AM

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