Meyer leaves Sotheby's

November 25 2013

Image of Meyer leaves Sotheby's

Picture: Newsweek

I don't think many people saw this coming - Tobias Meyer, Sotheby's talented modern and contemporary art auctioneer, is to leave Sotheby's. Oliver Barker (congrats) is to take his place. The Washington Post reports:

Sotheby's is parting ways with its head of contemporary art, an area where the auction house's performance has been criticized by activist hedge fund manager Dan Loeb.

The company said Tobias Meyer, its world-wide head of contemporary art, will leave after more than 20 years with the global art auction house. Sotheby's characterized the decision as mutual and coinciding with the coming expiration of Mr. Meyer's contract.

Contract negotiations with Mr. Meyer began before Mr. Loeb aired his criticism, a person familiar with the matter said. Mr. Meyer didn't immediately respond to requests for comment Friday.

Mr. Meyer became the world-wide head of contemporary art in 1997 and principal auctioneer in July 2003, according to the company. For years, shareholders at Sotheby's annual meetings could count on seeing him in the crowd.

The decision follows last week's high-profile New York contemporary art auctions in which rival Christie's pulled in $782.4 million over two days of sales anchored by a Francis Bacon triptych that went for $142.4 million, the highest price for a piece of art sold at auction.

Sotheby's, with Mr. Meyer presiding at the evening sale, brought in $474.2 million over two days, including a $105.4 million price for a work by Andy Warhol, a record for the artist.

Oliver Barker, deputy chairman for Sotheby's in Europe, will pick up responsibility for the auction house's marquee evening sales of contemporary art in New York and London, the person familiar with the matter said.

The recent article on Meyer in Newsweek, which I posted below, gives you an idea of how important people like him are to the auciton houses when it comes to sourcing works for sale - and how stressful it can be if you don't nail the crucial consignments.

Update - ooh, a reader alerts me, in of course an entirely unconnected way, to the end paragraph in Daniel Loeb's recent broadside against the current Sotheby's management, in which he (as Sotheby's largest shareholder) mentions certain 'internal candidates' as replacement CEO's, were he to have his way in restructuring the company. Is there something afoot?

Sotheby’s is like an old master painting in desperate need of restoration. Auctions, private and internet sales all need to be reinvigorated or revamped. Sotheby’s global footprint must expand, and opportunities to exploit the Sotheby’s brand through adjacent businesses should be considered. Sotheby’s can also use its unique position and potential excess capital to judiciously take principal positions in works of art when doing so would not conflict with its clients’ interests.

As with any important restoration, Sotheby’s must first bring in the right technicians. Third Point is not only Sotheby’s largest shareholder but also has significant experience and a successful track record of serving on public company boards. I am willing to join the board immediately and help recruit several new directors who have experience increasing shareholder value, share a passion for art, understand technology and luxury brands, or have operated top-performing sales organizations. Importantly, our candidates would also better represent Sotheby’s expanding geographic footprint. We support the Company placing a designee from another large shareholder on the Board as well. Once installed, these new directors would determine what other steps are necessary to ensure that the Company benefits from the rigor and direction that comes with having an “owners’ perspective” in the boardroom.

It is also time, Mr. Ruprecht, for you to step down from your positions as Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer and for the role of Chairman to be separated for your successor. While you were an able caretaker of Sotheby’s during times of crisis, you have not shown the innovation or inspiration the Company sorely needs to play offense today. Sotheby’s requires a CEO with sufficient knowledge of the global art markets to make critical decisions, who can move seamlessly around the globe building the business and strengthening client relationships. Respectfully, we do not see evidence that you are the right person to repair the Company and drive its growth in today’s dynamic global art market.

Therefore, once on the Board, it will be our top priority to commence a search for a new Chief Executive Officer from either within or outside the Company. Based on our due diligence and discussions with participants in the art market, there are at least two internal candidates for the CEO position who warrant serious consideration. We have already begun informal discussions with outside candidates and would welcome the opportunity to bring the internal candidates into a formal process.

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