Tobias Meyer -- Chief Auctioneer -- Exits Sotheby's

New York City -- Tobias Meyer, who has been the public face of Sotheby’s for nearly 20 years both as its principal auctioneer and worldwide head of its contemporary art department, is leaving the company, the auction house said yesterday.

Art collectors of ArtKabienett social media network will miss watching Meyer's dramatic slamming of the auction gavel.

In an interview, Meyer said he intends to continue working with collectors as a private dealer.

His departure comes on the heels of Sotheby’s biggest sale ever, which took place last week. The evening contemporary art auction, led by Meyer, totaled $380.6 million.

The news also comes at a particularly vulnerable time for the auction house. Sotheby’s has been under attack by the activist investor Daniel S. Loeb, who said last month that he wanted to join the company’s board and called for William F. Ruprecht, its chief executive, to step down, adding that “Sotheby’s is like an old master painting in desperate need of restoration.”

For several seasons now Sotheby’s has been lagging sorely behind Christie’s, its fierce arch-rival, whose postwar and contemporary art evening sale on Nov. 12 brought $691.5 million, over $300 million more than Sotheby’s auction which took place the following night.

Not wanting to make it seem as though one of the company’s biggest profit centers was now left rudderless, Mr. Ruprecht praised its contemporary art team “of more than 60 worldwide” led by Alexander Rotter in New York and Cheyenne Westphal in Europe.

But Sotheby’s officials have been doing damage control, calling the company’s most important clients trying to minimize the news, according to dealers in the field.

Stellar Career

In the last nine years, Meyer has sold three works of art for more than $100 million each, starting with Picasso’s “Boy With the Pipe (The Young Apprentice),” a 1905 canvas from the artist’s Rose Period that brought $104.1 million in 2004.

He auctioned Edvard Munch’s fabled 1895 pastel of “The Scream” for nearly $120 million last year, making it then the most expensive art work ever sold at auction. (Last week, Christie’s auctioned Francis Bacon’s 1969 triptych, “Three Studies of Lucian Freud,” for $142.4 million.) And on Nov. 13, Mr. Meyer brought the hammer down on Andy Warhol’s “Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster),” a double-paneled painting from 1963, for $104.5 million.

The German-born Meyer joined Sotheby’s in 1992 to run its contemporary art department in London, after having worked his way up in the auction world, starting as a junior cataloger at Christie’s in London. In 1997 he moved to New York to run Sotheby’s contemporary art department worldwide and became the company’s chief auctioneer in 2000.

No successor has been named to replace Meyer as a worldwide head of the contemporary art department. Company officials said that the auction house has no plans to fill the role.

Nor has Sotheby’s named a new principal auctioneer, though Mr. Meyer’s next auction appearance would have been in February, at Sotheby’s important London evening auction.

The company did say, though, that Oliver Barker, Sotheby’s deputy chairman in Europe and its senior international specialist in contemporary art, would conduct the department’s evening sales in New York as well as Europe.

Meyer said he felt the time was right to leave the auction house now. “Warhol has been the bookend of my career at Sotheby’s,” he said, referring to “Orange Marilyn,” the 1964 painting which brought $17.3 million when he auctioned it in 1998, shortly after arriving in New York from London.

Now, with his grand finale last week with a giant price for the artist’s car crash painting, “it’s important to leave on a high note.”