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Sotheby's top auctioneer leaving amid investor pressure

By Lewis Krauskopf and Svea Herbst-Bayliss

(Reuters) - Tobias Meyer, Sotheby's chief auctioneer, is leaving the auction house, the company said on Friday, just a week after Sotheby's recorded the highest sale in its history.

The departure of Meyer, the worldwide head of contemporary art, comes as Sotheby's is being pressured by activist investors including Daniel Loeb to improve its business strategies and earn more money for shareholders.

In a statement, Sotheby's Chief Executive Officer Bill Ruprecht said that with Meyer's contract expiring soon, "we all agreed it was time to part ways."

"Tobias Meyer is a respected figure and has been at the center of signature moments in Sotheby's history for more than 20 years and we are grateful for all of his contributions," Ruprecht said.

The announcement of Meyer's departure comes after he auctioned off Andy Warhol's "Silver Car Crash" for $104.5 million last week. While that helped the auction house have its best sale ever, at $380 million, it still lagged behind arch rival Christie's, which earned $691.5 million the same week with a record-setting Francis Bacon painting.

The German-born Meyer, 50, was known to jet around the world to find both sellers and buyers of art and to be able to skillfully drive up prices with his timing and sense of humor.

"I will always cherish my time at Sotheby's and look forward to the next chapter in my career," Meyer said in the statement released by the company.

Loeb's Third Point, which is the largest shareholder in Sotheby's, and other investors have been pushing for change at the 269-year-old auction house.

Loeb penned a letter to Ruprecht in October criticizing the company's approach to auctions, private sales and Internet sales, as well as excessive spending and waste at the expense of shareholders.

Loeb, a prominent art collector himself, has suggested that Ruprecht has not done enough to keep the auction house current with growing demand for contemporary art.

Loeb has offered to join the board and wants to oust Ruprecht. The company adopted a poison pill to thwart the move.

A spokeswoman for Loeb did not immediately return a request for comment.

Art industry consultant Elizabeth Jacoby, who runs BSJ Fine Art with her mother, said Meyer's departure did not come as a complete surprise but called it significant.

Sotheby's stock slipped nearly 1 percent on Friday to close at $52.21 but has raced ahead 55 percent this year, climbing both as the activist investors arrived and as wealthy art collectors seemed poised to buy and sell more masterpieces.

(Reporting by Lewis Krauskopf and Svea Herbst-Bayliss; Editing by Bill Trott)

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