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In a filing with the US Securities and Exchange Commission, Taikang Life cited a “positive view” of Sotheby’s business as the primary reason for the purchase while Tad Smith, Sotheby’s president, said in a statement that the auction house “warmly welcomed” Taikang’s support of the company’s “strategic initiatives”.

Cheng, who could soon take a place on Sotheby’s board, is a seasoned player in the Chinese art market. In the early 1990s, in the hope of emulating firms such as Sotheby's, he helped found China Guardian Auctions – now the second-largest in China next to state-backed Poly Auctions. Taikang Life Insurance also runs a contemporary art gallery in northeast Beijing.

Some degree of cooperation between the Sotheby’s and Guardian can be expected. Sotheby’s already have substantial operations in China including offices in Beijing and Shanghai in addition to a long-standing Hong Kong presence. However, it was rival Christie’s who become the first international auction house to operate independently in China when they were granted a license in 2013.

In recent times, Sotheby’s biggest shareholder has been Third Point, a hedge fund run by Daniel Loeb who owns around 11% of the company. Loeb’s quest for better shareholder value led to a year-long proxy battle with the Sotheby’s board and ultimately the replacement of former chief Bill Ruprecht with Tad Smith in March 2015.