November 22, 2013 9:20 pm

Sotheby’s loses its star auctioneer

A video display panel is seen outside Sotheby's in London©Reuters

Sotheby’s, the auction house under pressure from activist investor Dan Loeb, is losing its star auctioneer, nine days after he oversaw the highest grossing sale in the company’s history.

Tobias Meyer, the group’s head of contemporary art, was widely regarded as the public face of Sotheby’s. He personally negotiated with collectors to procure record-setting lots including Andy Warhol’s “Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster)”, which he brought the hammer down on at $105.4m.

The postwar and contemporary art sale in New York which featured the Warhol diptych brought in a total of $360.6m, the highest ever for a Sotheby’s auction, and followed Mr Meyer’s auction last year of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” for almost $120m.

However, the figure was around half that of arch-rival Christie’s, where a comparable sale the previous evening garnered $670.4m – a new record for a postwar and contemporary sale. Its star lot of the night, “Three Studies of Lucien Freud” by Francis Bacon, went under the hammer for $142m making it the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction.

The historic rivalry between the two houses is deeper than ever, with Christie’s widely considered within the market to have a significant advantage over Sotheby’s in sourcing quality contemporary and postwar material.

The pressure on Sotheby’s increased last month, when Mr Loeb, its largest shareholder, launched a blistering attack on the company’s managerial and business practices.

“Sotheby’s success will be defined in large part by its ability to generate sales and profits in contemporary and modern art, as this is where the greatest growth potential lies,” he wrote in a public letter to Bill Ruprecht, Sotheby’s chairman and chief executive.

“However it is apparent to us from our meeting that you do not fully grasp the central importance of contemporary and modern art to the company’s growth strategy, which is highly problematic since these are the categories expanding most rapidly among new collectors,” Mr Loeb wrote.

Mr Ruprecht said on Friday: “Tobias Meyer is a respected figure and has been at the centre of signature moments in Sotheby’s history for more than 20 years.

“However with Tobias’ contract soon expiring, we all agreed it was time to part ways. We wish Tobias nothing but good fortune.”

One of the leading figures of the high-end auction house art market, Mr Meyer joined Sotheby’s in 1992 as head of contemporary art in London. Five years later he moved to the company headquarters in New York to lead the worldwide department.

Sotheby’s has said it has no plans to appoint a successor.

“I will always cherish my time at Sotheby’s and look forward to the next chapter in my career,” said Mr Meyer.

In its most recent earnings call this month, Sotheby’s stressed that it was undertaking a thorough review of capital allocation and strategic policies in every sector of the auction house. The results will be made available to shareholders in January.

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