Christie's CEO stepping down; new leader named

In a surprise announcement, Christie's says its CEO is stepping down; a new leader is named

Just days after Sotheby's announced the departure of its chief executive officer, rival auction house Christie's made a surprise announcement Tuesday that its CEO, Steven P. Murphy, will be stepping down at the end of the year.

Christie's said that Patricia Barbizet will take on the role of CEO while retaining her position as the company's chairman. Barbizet, who hails from France, is also the head of Artémis Group, the investment firm founded by billionaire Francois Pinault, who happens to own Christie's.

Barbizet will be the first woman to head Christie's, which is headquartered in London.

Murphy had led Christie's for four years. Under his tenure, the company has ridden the soaring art market, recording record sums at high-profile auctions.

It remains unclear what precipitated Murphy's departure from the company. In a prepared statement Tuesday, he said he was initially brought on board to help modernize the company.

"We have now successfully concluded an ambitious three-year plan and the company is in the strongest leadership position in its history," he said.

Christie's has shown particular strength in the contemporary art market and recently recorded $852.9 million in sales at a single auction in New York. The November auction featured an Andy Warhol triple-silkscreen piece of Elvis Presley that sold for $81.9 million.

The intense rivalry between Christie's and Sotheby's has only intensified as the art market continues to boom.  

Sotheby's has been under fire in recent months from activist investor Daniel Loeb. In November, the company's CEO, William Ruprecht, announced his departure following months of acrimony between the auction house's board and Loeb, whose Third Point LLC hedge fund is one of the biggest shareholders of Sotheby's.

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