This Day On The Street
Continue to site right-arrow
ADVERTISEMENT
This account is pending registration confirmation. Please click on the link within the confirmation email previously sent you to complete registration.
Need a new registration confirmation email? Click here
$1 buys you full access to ALL of TheStreet's Subscription Services! Learn More

Dan Loeb's Doomed Sotheby's Campaign

Stocks in this article: BIDSNEYHOOCHRS

NEW YORK ( Reuters Blogs) -- Dan Loeb is going to lose his latest fight, at Sotheby's. That's because it's a Sony, not a Yahoo!.

To recap: Loeb filed his broadside against the auction house, where he said that he holds a 9.3% stake in the company, and called for the resignation of Bill Ruprecht, its chairman and CEO. It's worth comparing Loeb's letter to Sotheby's with his May letter to Sony, or his September 2011 letter to Yahoo!.

The tone of Loeb's Sotheby's letter is significantly harsher than the tone he took with either Sony or Yahoo!: In those cases, while he was critical, he avoided getting personal in the way he's doing with Ruprecht. Loeb's latest attack, by contrast, concentrates on things like Ruprecht's salary, and the amount of money managers spend at swanky restaurants -- juicy details, to be sure, but hardly of strategic importance.

That kind of ad hominem attack was never going to be well received -- and so Sotheby's announced, to no one's surprise, that it was retaliating with a classic poison-pill defense. Translating from the corporatespeak, Ruprecht is telling Loeb, quite simply: "You want a fight? OK, you'll get a fight."

Loeb concentrates on Sotheby's competitive position with respect to Christie's, which is owned by French billionaire Francois Pinault. Pinault is an avid collector of modern and contemporary art, and he has turned Christie's into a powerhouse in that sector -- which also happens to be the hottest sector of the art world right now. Loeb knows the art-auction business about as well as he knows the music business, which is to say that he knows what's hot, and he wants to ride the trends. "Sotheby's success," he writes, "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."

Sotheby's is no slouch in that business. Recently, it announced that it is going to sell a major Warhol disaster painting, which is very likely to set a new auction record -- Warhol's record could easily be broken, and even possibly the all-time auction record as well. The announcement features some classic auction-house hyperbole, saying that Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) "takes its place alongside paintings such as Pablo Picasso's Guernica and Theodore Gericault's The Raft of the Medusa as one of the definitive masterpieces of history painting." But it actually stops short of the kind of language that Christie's employs in its own press releases. Here's the announcement of Christie's own Warhol, which will appear alongside a big Koons sculpture and be sold a day before the Sotheby's Warhol:

Christie's evening sale in November will offer a unique dialogue between two masters of Pop, Andy Warhol with Coca-Cola (3) and Jeff Koons, with his Balloon Dog (Orange). Two different generations of Pop artists standing side by side; Andy Warhol is the father of everything we know about Pop Art and Jeff Koons is his anointed successor. Both create objects which are totally universal and loved by the public, truly POPular in that sense.

(Bizarre capitalization in the original, along with the subtle -- and untrue -- suggestion that somehow Warhol anointed Koons as his successor-in-pop.)

Warhols aside, it makes sense that Sotheby's, as a storied company being run to last in perpetuity, should naturally behave differently than Christie's, which is a billionaire's plaything. Indeed, when Loeb first revealed his interest in Sotheby's back in September, I thought that was his end-game: that he was looking to shop the auction house to some other billionaire. (Bernard Arnault, perhaps, or maybe even Larry Gagosian.)

His letter, however, shows that Loeb is thinking about keeping Sotheby's public, while attempting to oust the current senior management. That's a move akin to central-bank currency interventions: you need a lot of firepower, and you also need the trend on your side. In this case, Loeb's arsenal has already been seriously depleted by the poison-pill defense -- and shareholders aren't particularly likely to want to side with him, not when Ruprecht's performance has delivered a share-price rise from less than $30 at the end of last year to move than $50 today.

If you look at the success of Loeb's strategy at Yahoo!, it was based on applying astonishing leverage: with control of just 5% of the company's shares, Loeb first managed to get himself multiple seats on the board, and then used those seats to astonishing effect, overriding the chairman's preferences and effectively installing his own nominee as CEO -- the person who could achieve the fastest run-up in the share price, after which he could exit with a large profit. In order to execute that kind of strategy, your relationships with the company and its governors can't be personal and adversarial. You have to persuade them that your interests are aligned.

And it seems obvious to me that Loeb isn't going to persuade the Sotheby's board that he knows best how to run Sotheby's, any more than he persuaded the Sony board that he knows best how to run Sony. Instead, the Sotheby's board is going to close ranks behind Ruprecht, defending itself from a hedge-fund manager who never has the genuinely long-term health of a company at heart.

What Loeb wants is a quick boost in the Sotheby's share price: that's why he's concentrating so hard on the white-hot areas of contemporary art and China. Given that, it's going to be very easy for Ruprecht to persuade the board that he stands for something more permanent, more noble, and, ultimately, more likely to survive the when-not-if moment at which the Chinese/Contemporary art bubble bursts.

Of course, it's entirely possible that Loeb will make money on his investment, if his shares rise in value. But I very much doubt that he's going to succeed in ousting Ruprecht, and the chances are that he will quietly exit his position once the failure of his strategy becomes obvious. After all, he's an activist investor. And if he can't shake things up at Sotheby's, he's going to move on to another company where he can.

-- Written by Felix Salmon in New York.

Read more of Felix's blogs at Reuters.

Select the service that is right for you!

COMPARE ALL SERVICES
Action Alerts PLUS
Try it NOW

Jim Cramer and Stephanie Link actively manage a real portfolio and reveal their money management tactics while giving advanced notice before every trade.

Product Features:
  • $2.5+ million portfolio
  • Large-cap and dividend focus
  • Intraday trade alerts from Cramer
  • Weekly roundups
TheStreet Quant Ratings
Try it NOW
Only $49.95/yr

Access the tool that DOMINATES the Russell 2000 and the S&P 500.

Product Features:
  • Buy, hold, or sell recommendations for over 4,300 stocks
  • Unlimited research reports on your favorite stocks
  • A custom stock screener
  • Upgrade/downgrade alerts
Stocks Under $10
Try it NOW

David Peltier, uncovers low dollar stocks with extraordinary upside potential that are flying under Wall Street's radar.

Product Features:
  • Model portfolio
  • Stocks trading below $10
  • Intraday trade alerts
  • Weekly roundups
Dividend Stock Advisor
Try it NOW

Jim Cramer's protege, David Peltier, identifies the best of breed dividend stocks that will pay a reliable AND significant income stream.

Product Features:
  • Diversified model portfolio of dividend stocks
  • Alerts when market news affect the portfolio
  • Bi-weekly updates with exact steps to take - BUY, HOLD, SELL
Real Money Pro
Try it NOW

All of Real Money, plus 15 more of Wall Street's sharpest minds delivering actionable trading ideas, a comprehensive look at the market, and fundamental and technical analysis.

Product Features:
  • Real Money + Doug Kass Plus 15 more Wall Street Pros
  • Intraday commentary & news
  • Ultra-actionable trading ideas
Options Profits
Try it NOW

Our options trading pros provide daily market commentary and over 100 monthly option trading ideas and strategies to help you become a well-seasoned trader.

Product Features:
  • 100+ monthly options trading ideas
  • Actionable options commentary & news
  • Real-time trading community
  • Options TV
To begin commenting right away, you can log in below using your Disqus, Facebook, Twitter, OpenID or Yahoo login credentials. Alternatively, you can post a comment as a "guest" just by entering an email address. Your use of the commenting tool is subject to multiple terms of service/use and privacy policies - see here for more details.
Submit an article to us!
DOW 17,810.06 +91.06 0.51%
S&P 500 2,063.50 +10.75 0.52%
NASDAQ 4,712.97 +11.1030 0.24%

Brokerage Partners

Rates from Bankrate.com

  • Mortgage
  • Credit Cards
  • Auto

Free Newsletters from TheStreet

My Subscriptions:

After the Bell

Before the Bell

Booyah! Newsletter

Midday Bell

TheStreet Top 10 Stories

Winners & Losers

Register for Newsletters
Top Rated Stocks Top Rated Funds Top Rated ETFs