There's a multi-million pound bidding war brewing on the High Street

A man holds his hand up while bidding on a work of art inside the auction house Christie's during the Post-War and contemporary Art sale November 15, 2006 in New York City. Christie's estimates that works by Warhol, Willem de Kooning, Roy Lichtenstein and others could go for up to $220 million in what the auction house says may be the most valuable post-World War II and contemporary art auction in history. Warhol's 'Mao' portrait from 1972 went for over 17 million, setting an all time record for the artist. (Photo by )Spencer Platt/Getty ImagesSainsbury’s v. Wesfarmers.

Home Retail Group, the owner of Homebase and Argos, is being courted by two potential suitors — Sainsbury’s and Australian retailer Wesfarmers.

Sainsbury’s confirmed last week it had made a bid for Home Retail Group and late on Wednesday Home Retail Group announced in an emailed statement that it is in “advanced discussions” with Wesfarmers to sell Homebase for £340 million ($489.8 million), confirming a Sky News story.

That explains why Home Retail Group knocked back Sainsbury’s bid, believed to have been tabled last November.

Sainsbury’s hasn’t given up hope, however, saying this week in a presentation to investors that “combining the businesses would be strategically compelling and would create shareholder value.” If Sainsbury’s can convince Home Retail Group to merge there’s speculation it could cost upwards of £1.6 billion ($2.3 billion).

Quite what Sainsbury’s make of the Wesfarmers news is unclear as we’re yet to see a statement from them. The supermarket seemed keener on Argos than Homebase, so we could well see a fresh bid for the slimmed down Home Retail Group after the Homebase sale is out of the way.

On Thursday Home Retail group put out its Christmas trading update for the 18 weeks to January 2, showing:

  • Argos sales up 0.9%, but same-store sales (stripping out gains from opening new places) down 2.2%;
  • Homebase sales down by 4%, while same-store sales up 5%. The slump is mainly down to store closures;
  • Group profits for the year ending February set to be “around the bottom of the current range of market expectations of £92 million to £118 million.”

Home Retail Group’s management are clearly backing Wesfarmers in the takeover bun fight, with CEO John Walden saying in today’s statement:

The potential transaction would allow the Group to focus on Argos and its Transformation Plan, with an improved balance sheet and financial position, which I believe would represent an even greater opportunity for building long-term shareholder value.

Despite the disappointing profit forecast and unspectacular sales, Home Retail shares are up over 3% this morning thanks to the takeover and deal chatter.

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