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Wednesday, 5 December, 2001, 22:42 GMT
History of a conspiracy
Alfred Taubman
Taubman made his fortune building shopping malls
In a case that has scandalised the art world, a New York jury has found the former chairman of Sotheby's, Alfred Taubman, guilty of conspiring to fix commissions on art sales.

Indicted in May this year, the 76-year-old multimillionaire shopping mall developer from Michigan was accused of conspiring with his counterpart at rival auction house Christie's to cheat customers out of some $400m in the 1990s.

Diana Brooks
Diana Brooks: Key witness
After investigating the case for four years, US prosecutors concluded that Mr Taubman was the mastermind of the scheme.

While acknowledging the existence of a conspiracy between the two auction houses, Mr Taubman's lawyers disputed his role in it - portraying him as an out-of-touch executive with no head for figures.

Here was a man who would fall asleep in board meetings and who was more concerned with the lunch menu and guest lists than auctions and prices, said witnesses called by the defence.

A character description promptly lambasted by prosecution lawyers, who with the aid of their key witness, Sotheby's former chief executive Diana Brooks, gave accounts of secret meetings and intrigues orchestrated by Mr Taubman.

The Michigan businessman declined to take the stand.

Secret deal

Alfred Taubman bought Sotheby's, which dates back to the 18th century, in the midst of a hostile takeover attempt in 1983.

Sotheby's
Sotheby's admitted to conspiring with Christie's
Known for saying "there is more similarity in the marketing challenge of selling a precious painting by Degas and a frosted mug of root beer than you ever thought possible," Mr Taubman became chairman of the company in 1993.

Mr Taubman and Christie's chairman Sir Anthony Tennant are said to have met a dozen times from 1993 through 1996 in the Michigan businessman's homes in London and New York, and in his New York offices.

It was at these meetings that the two men allegedly agreed to fix the commissions they charged their clients, who included some of the world's richest people.

The idea was to keep the two auction houses from offering discounts or other inducements to sellers in an effort to win business

According to Ms Brooks, the secret deal between her company and Christie's - which together control about 90% of the world's art, jewellery and furniture market - existed for much of the 1990s.

Reasonable doubt

She told the jury that Mr Taubman had said the two companies were "killing each other on the bottom line and that it was time to do something about it."

Ms Brooks said she was involved in the conspiracy with her chairman, Sir Anthony and her counterpart at Christie's, Christopher Davidge.

Mr Davidge and Christie's admitted conspiracy to fix prices, but Sir Anthony denied involvement and refused to testify. Being resident in the UK, he cannot be extradited on antitrust charges.

The defence sought to turn the case back on Ms Brooks, saying it was she who designed the scheme without Mr Taubman's knowledge. She then blamed him to avoid being sent to prison.

"This whole case comes down to whether you believe Ms Brooks beyond a reasonable doubt," lawyer Robert Fiske told the jurors.

And, they appear to have believed her.

Rise and fall

The portrayal of Alfred Taubman - ranked 340 on Forbes latest list of the 400 richest Americans - as a "dumb businessman" may have been hard to swallow for the jurors.

Now worth an estimated $800m, Mr Taubman reads like that of the classic American self-made man.

Born into a working class Jewish family in Michigan during the Great Depression, Mr Taubman suffered from dyslexia as a child and later dropped out of university.

As a young man in the 1950s, he turned a $5,000 loan into a fortune by building giant shopping centres.

His name now adorns several university institutions, including the Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions at Brown and three buildings at the University of Michigan.

Along the way, he also managed to found a professional football team and marry a former Miss Israel.

And now, to cap it all, Mr Taubman is about to find himself the subject of a courtroom drama starring Sigourney Weaver as Diana Brooks.

See also:

16 Jul 01 | Business
Sotheby's downgraded to junk status
12 Oct 01 | Business
Sotheby's reviews flagging website
28 Nov 01 | Europe
Sothebys makes French debut
05 Dec 01 | Americas
Former Sotheby's chairman guilty
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