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Telecom titan Patrick Drahi is buying Sotheby's for US$2.7b

[PARIS] Telecom titan Patrick Drahi is buying Sotheby's for US$2.7 billion, taking it private after 31 years as a public company, and placing the world's two leading auction houses under the control of French billionaires.

Investors will receive US$57 in cash per share of Sotheby's common stock under terms of the agreement, according to a statement Monday from the New York-based company. The offer represents a 61 per cent premium to the closing price on Friday. Sotheby's shares rose 57 per cent to US$55.58 as of 9.40am in New York. The enterprise value is US$3.7 billion.

Sotheby's shares had dropped 40 per cent in the past year as the company battled expenses and margins even as masterpieces and contemporary works set auction records. Mr Drahi, 55, is the president of Altice Europe, a publicly traded telecommunications business with more than 30 million customers. An avid art collector, he's worth US$8.6 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

"Sotheby's is one of the most elegant and aspirational brands in the world," Mr Drahi said in the statement. "As a longtime client and lifetime admirer of the company, I am acquiring Sotheby's together with my family."

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Drahi's latest purchase is a surprise move for a man known for the telecoms empire he built, which grew out of a string of debt-financed acquisitions in France before eventually expanding to the US in 2015. Mr Drahi said he intends to monetise a small piece of the US business for as much as US$400 million to fund the Sotheby's deal.

Altice Europe's main asset is SFR in France. The business is finally returning to growth after years of customer losses amid cutthroat competition for subscribers in France. Shares in Altice Europe have gained more than 70 per cent this year.

Mr Drahi's takeover would mean that French citizens will own the world's two major auction houses. The family of Francois Pinault, founder of Paris-based luxury goods giant Kering, owns Christie's after first buying a 29.1 per cent stake in the company from British billionaire Joe Lewis two decades ago.

"It was ripe for Sotheby's to go private," said Philip Hoffman, chief executive officer of the Fine Art Group and a former Christie's executive. "Christie's has more advantages being run privately and not having public quarterly reporting that puts pressure on their ability to do deals."

LionTree Advisors is advising Sotheby's, while BNP Paribas and Morgan Stanley working with BidFair, an entity controlled by Drahi. BNP Paribas is sole financing provider.