Sotheby’s CEO William Ruprecht steps down

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Bill Ruprecht, CEO of Sotheby's, was named by shareholders in three cases.

Bill Ruprecht is leaving Sotheby’s after 14 years as CEO and 34 years at the auction house. In a statement Sotheby’s said it was a mutual decision. He will stay until a new CEO is found.

“I have had the privilege of working with so many talented and dedicated colleagues at Sotheby’s, and I am proud of all that we have accomplished together. This is an exciting time for this great Company, as we continue to capitalize on robust global demand in our salesrooms and increasingly online,” said Ruprecht. “The last few years have been the most successful in the Company’s history. I am comfortable and confident saying Sotheby’s is well positioned for the next chapter of its success, and I will do all I can to contribute to a smooth leadership transition.”

Although he leaves following Sotheby’s largest ever sale, 2014 has been a tough year for Ruprecht and the auction house’s board. At the start of the year, activist investor Third Point, which is one of the auction house’s third largest investors, demanded three seats on Sotheby’s board.

In one letter to shareholders, Third Point attacked Ruprecht’s pay. “We also believe that CEO remuneration is high given the size of the Company. CEO compensation of $6-7 million per year is awarded at luxury companies like Tiffany & Co., which is nearly four times the size of Sotheby’s. Beyond the compensation levels themselves, the CEO’s perquisites are throwbacks to a bygone era. He receives a $25k annual personal automobile allowance, his country club dues are paid for, and his financial planning fees are covered by shareholders.” Third point also criticised the recent leadership of the auction house, holding them responsible for the fact “Sotheby’s has languished while Christie’s has thrived”

In May the auction house conceded and at the first meeting of the new board in June, the entire board signed a letter to employees saying: “The Board stands behind the management team led by Bill Ruprecht, and is committed to supporting your efforts and providing additional resources, where necessary, to realize our shared goals.”

Domenico De Sole, Lead Independent Director, is leading the search for Ruprecht’s replacement. De Sole said that “the board is focussed on ensuring a smooth transition”.

Ruprecht joined Sotheby’s in 1980. He became a Director and President and CEO of Sotheby’s in 2000 and was elected Chairman of the Board in 2012. He previously served as executive vice president and managing director of Sotheby’s North and South America and director of marketing.

This announcement comes after Sotheby’s Autumn season sales were beaten by rival Christie’s. With the Christie’s evening sale of Post War & Contemporary art reaching $852.8 million whilst the Sotheby’s equivalent sale failed to compete reaching only $343.6 million. Third Point had previously critisised Ruprecht for Sotheby’s “deteriorating competetive position relative to Christie’s” with particular mention to their Contemporary and Post War performance.

Tim Hunter Vice-President of Art Financing at Falcon Fine Art says he is anticipating a “messier time” for the main auction houses. “With Phillips set to target market share and challenging both Christie’s and Sotheby’s in the key area of Contemporary and Post War Art”.