By Sudip Kar-Gupta, Svea Herbst-Bayliss and Mathieu Rosemain
PARIS/BOSTON (Reuters) - Franco-Israeli cable magnate Patrick Drahi made a surprise move into the art world by snapping up Sotheby's in a deal worth $3.7 billion, marking the art auction house's return to private ownership after 31 years.
The acquisition allows Drahi to join French billionaire Francois Pinault - who owns Sotheby's main rival Christie's - at the top of the art world and New York society.
Drahi joins an exclusive club of French billionaires active in the global art market, which also includes LVMH's boss Bernard Arnault through his Louis Vuitton foundation.
Drahi's expansion in the United States also has echoes of former Vivendi boss Jean-Marie Messier, who turned a struggling French water company into a global media giant with stakes in established U.S. institutions.
The deal also marks a new chapter for the 275-year-old auction house that became a destination for a new generation of wealth created on Wall Street, in Silicon Valley and around the world.
In many ways, being public put Sotheby's at a competitive disadvantage to its main U.S. rival Christie's, which was already private, art 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 consultants Guggenheim, Asher.
Founded in London in 1744 before expanding overseas in the 20th century, Sotheby's had the distinction of being the oldest company listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
Famous items sold by Sotheby's include the collections of the late Duchess of Windsor, the personal collection of artist Andy Warhol and Edvard Munch's painting "The Scream".
Sotheby's said BidFair USA, an acquisition vehicle set up by Drahi, had offered $57 in cash per share to buy it out. The offer represented a premium of 61% to Sotheby's closing price on Friday, and gives it a market capitalisation of $2.6 billion.
LOEB WELCOMES DEAL
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 expensive works of art having steadily increased.
A report published by Swiss bank UBS and Art Basel in March said that the global art market had enjoyed another uptick in 2018.
Drahi - who is better known for engineering debt-fueled acquisitions in the cable and telecom business through the Altice group he controls - said he would be funding the takeover through financing arranged by French bank BNP Paribas and by equity provided by his own funds.
Drahi has also been selling non-core assets in recent years to ease concerns over the debt levels of his businesses.
The businessman said he would not be selling shares in his Altice Europe business, but would be cashing in a small stake in his Altice USA division. Shares in Altice USA fell around 2% on Monday.
Born in Morocco, Drahi, 55, was trained at the selective Polytechnique school in Paris, and holds dual French and Israeli citizenship.
Despite controlling influential French media outlets such as leftist bible Liberation and the country's most-watched news channel BFM TV, Drahi has shied away from elite gatherings of France’s establishment and spends much of his time between Switzerland, the United States and Israel.
"This investment will further demonstrate the anchoring of my family in the United States, a country where we have been very welcomed since the successful acquisitions of Suddenlink in 2015, Cablevision in 2016 and just recently Cheddar," Drahi said in a statement, referring to the two U.S. cable companies and an online news network respectively.
He said he had full confidence in Sotheby's management and did not expect any change to the company's strategy.
About five years ago, Sotheby's ended a long-running fight with activist investor Daniel Loeb's hedge fund Third Point, by asking Loeb and two associates to join Sotheby's board, and Loeb was instrumental in hiring Smith as CEO.
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," Loeb told Reuters.
BNP Paribas and Morgan Stanley advised Drahi, while LionTree Advisors worked on behalf of Sotheby's.
(Reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta, Svea Herbst-Bayliss, Mathieu Rosemain and Nivedita Balu; Editing by Deepa Babington)