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LVMH’s development capital arm LV Capital has bought out all former shareholders, including venture capitalists 3i who have had a 64 per cent controlling stake in the company since February 1998, when Christopher Weston sold out after a 25-year stint which saw Phillips become the world’s third largest auctioneer.

This second change of ownership in 20 months means that Phillips is now a wholly owned subsidiary of the French firm, but Chris Thomson, Phillips’ chief executive, stressed that this was entirely in line with the business plan which he has been pushing through over the past two years and represented a big opportunity to realise long term goals.

He said that new ownership did not signal a major change in direction and told staff, “As far as day-to-day management is concerned, it is very much business as usual.”

In the face of criticisms of the sale abroad, he responded vigorously. “I do not see this as a blow for the British art market,” he said. “Phillips is very committed to London, our investment in our London salerooms underlines our belief that there is still a very buoyant market in London.

“The art market is truly international and no-one with serious aspirations to become a serious player in that market can afford to be xenophobic,” he added.

Initially there will be no fewer than three senior LVMH directors on the Phillips board – Daniel Piette, president of LV Capital, Nicolas Bazire, managing director of the LVMH group and their mergers and acquisitions specialist Pierre Mallevays.

“This is probably an interim arrangement,” M. Mallevays told the Antiques Trade Gazette. “We know a lot about brands, but are keen to learn about the auction market. We see great potential in Phillips, and are ready to invest in Paris, New York and the Internet.”

Phillips currently have no French connection. The former partnership with major Paris auctioneers PIASA was dissolved last year, but it now seems likely that Phillips will have a presence in the French capital as soon as the auction market is opened up to free competition.

The LVMH expertise is in acquiring, developing and managing luxury brands, mostly with a high heritage value. The 200-year-old Phillips name is part of a large and distinguished stable of thoroughbreds which include: Dom Perignon, Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin, Krug, Pommery, Hennessy, Hine, Louis Vuitton, Loewe, Givenchy, Kenzo, Celine, Christian Dior, Guerlain, and Givenchy. Phillips cannot rival these names in terms of global brand awareness, but the acquisition is in line with LVMH’s strategy for investing in firms with development potential.

“In the short term nothing has changed,” concluded Chris Thomson. “But with new backing I see the pace of change accelerating in our overall plans for the business.”