By Patrick Drahi’s own admission during a press conference this morning announcing Sotheby’s plans for a post-lockdown reopening of the art market, he had not spoken to the press for five years. When the telecom mogul concluded his remarks with the pun that his buying Sotheby’s was like “Altice’s adventures in wonderland,” the world had a better idea why he usually keeps his thoughts to himself.
Although Drahi’s decision to speak was a savvy move, giving the Sotheby’s press event more impact, there was a subtext to the appearance that should not go unnoticed. An April filing notifying bondholders that Sotheby’s would face significant challenges if business remained curtailed by the coronavirus set off a series of wild rumors in the art market about Drahi’s ownership. The filing was made before Sotheby’s management had been able to pivot their sales strategy from live auctions to a series of online events. The surprising success of those events and the prospect of the world emerging from lockdown are only now beginning to be recognized.
At the virtual press event, Drahi’s presence helped speed along that recognition. He wasted no time beating back any suggestion that he might have regretted buying Sotheby’s.
“Today I am more enthusiastic about Sotheby’s than ever before,” Drahi said from his office. “More than during the 20 years when I was a very satisfied client; more than the day when I put the offer to buy the company, almost one year ago—it feels like 25 years ago but it is only one year—and more than the day when we closed only eight months ago.”
Drahi went out of his way to praise Charles Stewart’s transition from investment banker to operating executive to CEO. He then went on to name many of the key personnel at Sotheby’s, a not-so-subtle effort to underscore for the press the fact that he was intimately involved with the company’s operations.
Drahi’s remarks focused on a single theme: his confidence in the staff and his belief in the company’s future. “I would like to congratulate all of you for what you have been doing in the recent months,” Drahi said, addressing his staff. “We have seen fantastic changes thanks to you.“
Behind the scenes, the auction houses have been dealing with the ambivalence of their major clients. The financial statement provoked some clients to seek financial concessions or additional assurances from Sotheby’s. Buyers and sellers in this period have been battling a swirl of conflicting emotions. Some expressed greed in their desire to acquire works from distressed sellers; others showed fear that their consigned works might not achieve high enough prices.
Soothing nerves and projecting strength, Drahi also had another point to make to the press. Prior to today’s event, many in the art market felt free to imagine all sorts of scenarios that would provoke Drahi to abandon his obligations to Sotheby’s. Instead, he wanted to signal that the worst of the crisis appeared to be over and after a period of privation and effort they could once again begin to hope for the future. He congratulated the Sotheby’s team: “We have crossed the desert and we see now that we are much stronger than ever.”