Francois Pinault, one of France's wealthiest businessmen, who also owns the Chateau Latour vineyard and the Colorado ski resort of Vail, is paying pounds 721m for Christie's, where he is a regular customer.
The auction house, established in 1766, is the latest in a series of British "trophy assets" snapped up recently by foreign investors. It follows the sale of the Savoy hotel group to an American company and the impending sale of Rolls-Royce Motors to BMW or Volkswagen of Germany.
However, a spokesman for Mr Pinault denied that the sale might affect London's position as one of the world's top art centres along with New York. Mr Pinault's company Artemis, which conducted the deal, plans to keep the Christie's board of directors in place and they will still run the company from London.
But the new owner will take advantage of the liberalisation of the French art sales market, due to go through this summer. At present dominated by 400 licensed auction houses, which are all French, the market will be opened up to international competition. "Paris will become an important market but it won't match New York or London's expertise," one art expert said.Mr Pinault said: "There is a significant opportunity for Christie's as a private business as the trade in works of art continues to grow around the world."
In the City, analysts said Mr Pinault had paid a full price and that the art market might be affected by the economic turmoil in the Far East and by the lack of large single art collections now available. But Guy Bell, an analyst at the stockbroker Beeson Gregory, said: "Christie's has always been a target. People are interested in it because it's a bit of a trophy buy."
Mr Pinault acquired a 29 per cent stake in Christie's earlier this month from Joe Lewis, the Bahamas-based investor who himself tried to buy the whole company only a few months ago.
From its origins in 1766, Christie's has grown to become a powerhouse in the world art market, locked in a fierce battle with arch rival Sotheby's which is controlled from the US. It recently overtook Sotheby's to claim the top spot in art sales, although Sotheby's is still more profitable. In the art market recession earlier in the decade, Christie's slashed its workforce by nearly one-quarter and it ended last year with pre-tax profits of pounds 35m.
Christie's first sale was on 5 December 1766 in Pall Mall and it has handled some of the world's greatest and best-known sales, including that of the British prime minister Sir Robert Walpole's painting collection to the Russian empress Catherine the Great, the auction of the dress collection of Diana, Princess of Wales, last June and the Loeb art collection in New York which raised pounds 57m.
Business, page 24
Sellers' market: The top auctioneers
Founded by James Christie in London in 1766. World's top auctioneer with art sales of pounds 1.2bn last year. Offices in 40 countries and main salerooms in New York, London and Geneva. Covers everything from paintings and sculptures to cars and jewellery.
Founded in 1788 in London, now controlled from the US. Sales of pounds 1.1bn, but far more profitable than Christie's. Has 110 offices in 46 countries, with principal centres in New York and London.
Until last year owned by one man, Christopher Weston, since its foundation 25 years ago. Refinanced in March in a deal that gave venture capitalists 3i a major stake. Has big provincial network in UK and plans to expand in the US. Sales of pounds 111m.
Founded in 1793 in London. Smallest of the big houses, but still privately run. Two main showrooms in London. Specialises in contemporary ceramics and pop memorabilia. Sales last year of pounds 46m.Reuse content