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Phillips’s chief executive Christopher Thompson, who took control of Phillips last year when venture capitalists 3i took a large share in the company, declined to be drawn on what was described as “speculation and rumour”.

The Financial Times speculation was that top French businessman Bernard Arnault, arch-rival to François Pinault who bought Christie’s last year, was close to acquiring Phillips for £70m, but that there could be other potential buyers in the pipeline.

Arnault has invested heavily in building an internet business empire in 1999 and set up Europ@web. He would not be the first to see the advantage of ownership of a bricks-and-mortar auction house in the battle to gain credibility in on-line sales.

Meanwhile Christopher Thompson was keen to stress that it was business as usual right across the Phillips auction network. He said that his declared aim of repositioning Phillips as a true Bond Street business which fully lived up to its status as the third player in the marketplace was now bearing fruit in prestige sales. Such moves are bound to whet the appetite of would-be bidders for Phillips.