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苏富比私有化就能提振销售?

Peter S. Green 2019年09月16日

业内专家表示,苏富比私有化可能会改变市场格局。

2019年7月17日在伦敦苏富比举办的“勇敢新愿景:改变英国艺术界的流亡者”展览中一瞬。图片来源:Getty Images/Sotheby's

如何才能把古老且劳动密集型的知名品牌变成赚钱机器?这是法国电信业大亨帕特里克·德拉希面临的挑战。两周前,他获得了苏富比股东的批准,将通过价值37亿美元的交易把将历史长达275年的拍卖行私有化。

苏富比发表声明称,德拉希及其家人全资拥有的BidFair USA发起收购要约,91%股东投票支持。德拉希的出价为每股57美元,较苏富比6月14日也就是其宣布董事会同意与BidFair合并前一天的收盘价溢价61%。

据《华尔街日报》报道,德拉希宣称收购资金中15亿美元由自己提供,其余部分则将通过融资解决。另外,他将承担苏富比现有的10亿美元债务。

对德拉希来说,这笔收购交易相当于踏上一段不寻常的旅程。之前他最出名的是在法国建立负债累累的有线电视和手机“帝国”,过去四年向美国市场渗透。在艺术界,德拉希是个相对低调的收藏家,喜欢收藏毕加索和马蒂斯等20世纪艺术大师的作品,但并非纽约著名晚间拍卖会的常客。

在电信行业,德拉希以降低工资精简运营来削减成本而闻名,但这在苏富比可能很难实现。艺术拍卖领域的知名评论员,也是博客Culturegrrl.com的作者李·罗森鲍姆表示,激进投资者者丹·勒布已经分走了苏富比很大一块利润,他麾下的对冲基金Third Point LLC持有苏富比约14.3%股份,而且推动了苏富比卖给德拉希的交易。苏富比去年的销售额为63.5亿美元,利润为1.08亿美元,而私有状态的竞争对手佳士得声称去年总销售额为70亿美元,未公布利润数据。

业内专家表示,私有化可能会改变市场格局。

“总给人一种不公平的感觉,因为佳士得是私人公司,运作方式能略做调整。我们在市场上听到过类似抱怨,”纽约著名艺术顾问阿比盖尔·阿舍说。

世界上很多笔大额艺术品交易时,都由拍卖行向委托人保证最低售价,如果艺术品卖不到保证的价格,拍卖行不仅会损失金钱,还会损失声望,影响未来的成交机会。

苏富比上市过两次:一次是从1977年到1983年,另一次是从1988年直至最近。罗森鲍姆表示,苏富比转变为私人持股公司之后,比上市状态能承受更多风险,为高价拍卖品达成更多幕后交易,但与佳士得竞争意味着本来就很低的利润率可能面临更大压力。“业务量肯定会提升,”她说道,“但利润能否增加还不好说。”(苏富比拒绝对本文置评。)

中美贸易战可能影响苏富比的业务,如果中国艺术品在美国出售,或者中国买家在美国购买艺术品都将被征收新关税,罗森鲍姆说道。同时,随着英国退欧和经济减速的阴霾迫近,欧洲客户特别是英国客户很可能会担心大额交易,她补充道。

冒险者

苏富比私有化交易就像一张名片,德拉希借此与法国零售业大亨弗朗索瓦·皮诺平起平坐,皮诺是佳士得拍卖行的老板。根据彭博亿万富豪指数,皮诺财富约330亿美元,德拉希为107亿美元。

不过,德拉希最终也可能蒙受损失,就像另一位法国亿万富翁,也是该国首富的伯纳德·阿尔诺一样(彭博估测其身家为979亿美元),阿尔诺是奢侈品制造商路威酩轩的董事长。1999年阿尔诺曾买下菲利普斯拍卖行,有报道称期间由于一系列灾难性的拍卖交易而损失了数亿美元,三年后只得转手卖掉。

德拉希的名声和财富都来自注册地在荷兰的Altice NV公司,该公司拥有法国最大有线电视服务提供商Numericable的70%股份,还拥有法国第二大移动电话公司SFR。他在2015年移居美国,出资91亿美元(包括债务)收购了圣路易斯有线电视运营商Suddenlink的70%股份。次年,他又斥资177亿美元收购了纽约有线电视运营商Cablevision,从而让Altice成为美国最大的有线电视运营商之一。

德拉希旗下公司负债累累,但通过裁员和技术创新,以及敢于押下重注,大幅提高了营业利润率。市场研究公司Wolfe Research的电信分析师马西·里维克表示,有线电视服务方面,德拉希为实现高速光缆入户花费了巨资。

“他是个真正的企业家,”里维克向《财富》杂志表示,“他总能找到可以实现差异化和竞争优势的业务,然后经营得更好。他聘请的都是他认为可以做出正确决策的人,而且很敢于冒险。”

准备好迎接颠覆

要想下注苏富比这笔交易不亏,德拉希可能得重整艺术品拍卖业务。

“问题在于很多业务都历史悠久,所以他们对1万美元的拍品跟1000万美元的拍品处理方式没什么两样,太疯狂了,”一位艺术行业专业人士表示,为了不影响商业关系,该人士要求不具名。“但如果他实际上想走科技的路子,做这笔交易可能是很聪明的。”

这位业内人士表示,苏富比的目标市场是向全球“大众富裕阶层”出售价值5000美元至10万美元的收藏品。苏富比可以利用互联网技术寻找目标拍品和买家,并用悠久的历史品牌吸引客户。

苏富比拍卖行的平均拍卖品价格约为9000美元,100万美元以上的拍卖品只占交易量的2%,但占收入的40%。苏富比面临的挑战是如何既不增加成本又能提高销售额。削减成本是德拉希的专长,可以大展拳脚。

“苏富比和佳士得都是严重被低估的品牌,从来没有举债,”这位业内专业人士说道。

艺术顾问阿舍表示,德拉希的真正目标可能是将所谓的“蒂凡尼模式”引入苏富比。蒂芙尼是总店位于纽约第五大道的著名珠宝商,以自家豪华银餐具和钻石首饰为灵感开发了新品银质幸运手链,后来进账不少。

如今,苏富比能否在不冲淡品牌的前提下,利用声望销售低价拍卖品呢?

“如果你在全球有一众粉丝,非常了解品牌,也知道你向来只卖美好的商品,消费者都是美女和精英,” 阿舍说道。“那么你当然可以加一些没那么昂贵的商品,前提得能保证品牌声誉安全。”

从某种意义上说,先例不是没有:2004年将苏富比国际房地产公司出售给不动产服务提供商Reology后,根据交易中授权协议,去年苏富比获得了1090万美元收入。(财富中文网)

译者:艾伦

审校:夏林

How do you turn an ancient, labor-intensive prestige brand into a money machine? That’s the challenge facing French telecommunications mogul Patrick Drahi, who on Thursday won approval from shareholders of Sotheby’s to take the 275-year-old auction house private in a transaction worth $3.7 billion.

The offer by BidFair USA, a vehicle owned entirely by Drahi and his family, was backed by 91% of shareholders who voted on it, Sotheby’s said in a statement. Drahi offered $57 a share, a 61% premium to the stock’s market price on June 14, the day before Sotheby’s announced that its board had agreed to merge with BidFair.

Drahi has said he will finance the purchase with $1.5 billion of his own money and the rest with debt, according to a Wall Street Journal report. He’ll be assuming Sotheby’s existing $1 billion debt.

The purchase is a curious departure for Drahi, who’s best known for building a debt-laden cable and mobile phone empire in France before moving into the U.S. market over the past four years. In the art world, Drahi is a relatively modest collector of 20th century masters, including Picasso and Matisse, and is not a fixture at New York’s famed evening auctions.

Drahi is known in the telecom business for cost-cutting that shrinks payrolls and streamlines operations. That may be difficult to achieve at Sotheby’s. Activist investor Dan Loeb, whose Third Point LLC held about 14.3% of Sotheby’s and pushed for the sale to Drahi, has already rendered much of the fat from its operations, says Lee Rosenbaum, a prominent commentator on the art sale scene, and the author of the blog Culturegrrl.com. Sotheby’s made a profit of $108 million last year on sales of $6.35 billion, while privately held rival Christie’s, which doesn’t report its profits, claimed total sales last year of $7 billion.

Going private could change that, say industry experts.

“There was always this sense that it was an uneven playing field because Christie’s is a private company and therefore able to maneuver in a slightly different way. That was the complaint we heard in the marketplace,” says Abigail Asher, a prominent art consultant based in New York.

Many of the world’s biggest art deals involve auction houses guaranteeing a minimum sale price to consignors. When the art fails to sell at the guaranteed price, auction houses lose not just money, but the prestige that brings further sales.

Sotheby’s has gone public twice: once from 1977 to 1983, and then again in 1988. As a privately held company, Sotheby’s could take greater risks and cut more backroom deals for big-ticket auction lots than it could as a public company, says Rosenbaum, but the competition with Christie’s means already-low margins could face more pressure. “It will certainly do more business,” she says, “but I don’t know if it will make more profits.” (Sotheby’s declined to comment for this article.)

The U.S.-China trade war could hurt business, says Rosenbaum, particularly given new tariffs on Chinese art brought to the U.S. for sale and on Chinese buyers of art in the U.S. Meanwhile European customers, particularly in Britain, are likely to be nervous about making big-ticket purchases with the looming specter of Brexit and an economic slowdown, she adds.

A Daring Man

As a calling card, the Sotheby’s purchase puts Drahi in the same league as French retail magnate François Pinault, who owns Christie’s and has a fortune of about $33 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Drahi weighs in at $10.7 billion.

Drahi could end up like another French billionaire, Bernard Arnault, the country’s richest man (with $97.9 billion, estimates Bloomberg) and chairman of luxury goods maker LVMH. Arnault bought the Phillips auction house in 1999 and reportedly lost hundreds of millions of dollars in a series of disastrous sales before selling it three years later.

Drahi made his name and fortune with Dutch-registered Altice NV, which owns 70% of France’s largest cable provider, Numericable, and the second largest French mobile phone company, SFR. He moved into the U.S. in 2015, buying a 70% stake in Suddenlink, a St. Louis-based cable operator, for $9.1 billion (including debt). The next year, he bought New York-based operator Cablevision for $17.7 billion to turn Altice into one of the largest cable operators in the U.S.

Drahi has piled debt on his companies but also increased operating margins significantly through a mix of layoffs and technical innovation—and a willingness to make big bets. In the case of cable, says Marci Ryvicker, a telecom analyst at Wolfe Research, Drahi spent big to bring high speed fiberoptic cable directly to homes.

“He is a true entrepreneur,” Ryvicker tells Fortune. “He finds businesses where he has a differentiated and competitive advantage, and he tries to operate them better. He hires the people he feels can make the right decisions and he’s a risk taker.”

Poised for Disruption

For his bet to pay off with Sotheby’s, Drahi may have to reinvent the art auction business.

“The problem is these are historical businesses, so they handle a $10,000 object like they handle a $10 million object, which is crazy,” says one art industry professional who asked not to be named to preserve active business relationships. ”But if he wants to do what is in effect a tech play, then it may be a very smart deal.”

Sotheby’s target market, the industry professional says, is selling collectibles worth $5,000 to $100,000 to the “mass affluent” around the globe. The auction house uses Internet technology to target objects and buyers and lures them in with its storied brand.

The average lot price at Sotheby’s is about $9,000. Lots over $1 million account for only 2% of volume but 40% of revenue. A challenge for Sotheby’s is to increase sales without increasing costs. That’s where Drahi’s expertise in cost-cutting may come in.

“Sotheby’s and Christie’s are incredibly undervalued brands that haven’t been leveraged,” says the industry professional.

That, says Asher, the art consultant, may be Drahi’s real aim: taking what might be called the Tiffany model, after the prestigious Fifth Avenue jeweler that made a fortune selling silver charm bracelets that carry the aura of Tiffany’s grand silver tableware and diamond jewelry, to Sotheby’s.

Can the auction house leverage its prestige at a lower price point without diluting the brand?

“You’ve got a captive worldwide audience that knows the name and the brand and that it sells things of beauty to the beautiful and the elite,” says Asher. “You, too, can be a part of that brand at a less expensive level—but with the security of the brand name.”

There is precedent, of a kind: Sotheby’s took in $10.9 million last year from a licensing agreement that was part of its 2004 sale of Sotheby’s International Real Estate to Reology.

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