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Sotheby's is going, going . . . gone to the highest (American) bidder

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The fate of the London-based fine art auction house, Sotheby Parke Bernet, has finally been decided, after months of uncertainty and bitter public wrangles that have held the financial world spellbound.

The venerable British institution is to be turned over, for the handsome price of (STR)83 million ($124 million), to an American, millionaire businessman and art collector Alfred Taubman - reputed to be one of the richest men in the United States. He plans to take the company back into private ownership.

Mr. Taubman's takeover has the blessing of the British government and of Sotheby's managers, who have been promised they will be allowed to retain their jobs. The US businessman's offer of (STR)7 ($10.70) a share has been given the green light by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. After investigating Mr. Taubman's credentials, the commission said it saw no reason to block the sale.

The future of Sotheby's - which posted a $4.5 million pretax loss in 1982 - had hung in the balance since May. At that time the commission was called in to investigate an earlier bid by two other Americans, Marshall Cogan and Stephen Swid, who head General Felt Industries, the world's largest manufacturer of carpet underlay.

The Cogan-Swid bid was fiercely opposed both by Sotheby's board and by its unique staff of art experts, who felt that the Americans were ''totally unsuited'' to the task of running this highly specialized business. Sotheby's art experts threatened to resign ''en masse'' if Cogan and Swid succeeded.

Pressure from Sotheby's directors persuaded the government to order a monopolies commmission investigation into the proposed purchase. Soon after, Mr. Taubman emerged as a potential bidder - the ''white knight'' Sotheby's had been seeking to rescue the company and ward off the unwelcome Cogan-Swid offer. Mr. Taubman's bid, too, automatically went under the commission's microscope.


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