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Senior staff were informed at a meeting last Tuesday that the company was in negotiations with the Somerset House Trust to take over the existing Inland Revenue lease on the New and West Wings at Somerset House. The move, mirroring the recent “consolidation” of Christie’s New York operations with the closure of Christie’s East, would enable the company to sell the long leases they hold on their Old Brompton Road and King Street sites. Christie’s turnover last year was a record $2.32bn – of which King Street contributed £430m and CSK £99m – but undeclared profits were understood to be severely hit if not almost nullified by the $256m the company owes in settlement of the US class-action suit. Christie’s French owner, François Pinault, who paid what many regard as an inflated price of £721m for the company in May 1998, is his himself currently involved in a potentially damaging law suit with the Californian State authorities for alleged irregularities in a bid for the failed insurer Executive Life in the early 1990s.

A Christie’s spokesman was keen to stress that the move to Somerset House is “not a done deal. Negotiations are underway, but there’s still a long way to go”. However, the Trustees of Somerset House clearly see Christie’s as a suitable leaseholder alongside the Courtauld Institute and Galleries, the Gilbert Collection and the Hermitage Galleries. According to an official Press Statement: “The Trust sees many advantages in Christie’s outline proposal, in furthering the process of opening up Somerset House to the public and developing here a centre for culture and the arts.”