Curiel and Block reportedly implicated in auction house collusion scandal

The New York Times, citing lawyers close to a legal case against a former Sotheby’s official and top-ranking auction house officials, has reported that John Block, a former jewelry expert at Sotheby’s, and François Curiel, president of Christie’s France, have been publicly linked to the collusion scandal involving Christie’s and Sotheby’s auction houses.

The two prominent auction house officials-both leading experts in jewelry-have emerged as figures in pretrial jockeying in the criminal antitrust case against A. Alfred Taubman, the former chairman of Sotheby’s, The New York Times reported in its Oct. 2 edition.

Taubman’s trial, which has been postponed until Nov. 5, is the sole remaining criminal action in the huge scandal in which the two companies illegally colluded to fix commission fees charged to thousands of customers over several years in the 1990’s.

In a pretrial conference in Federal District Court in Manhattan on Monday, Oct. 1, a lawyer for Taubman contended, as he has in the past, that the two employees, one from each house, discussed changing the fees charged to buyers in 1992 and that these discussions were known by their superiors: Diana D. Brooks, the former chief executive of Sotheby’s, who has pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges, and Christopher M. Davidge, her counterpart at Christie’s, who is cooperating with federal prosecutors, the Times reported.

The lawyer, Robert B. Fiske Jr., asked Judge George B. Daniels to order federal prosecutors to turn over information regarding the discussions, the Times reported.

The lawyers argued that the two employees acted without Taubman’s knowledge. That would bolster their case that their client, who is charged with illegally fixing fees charged to sellers, was blameless in a scheme they say was hatched and carried out by underlings, the Times reported.

While the subordinates’ names were not disclosed in court, lawyers close to the case, along with top-ranking auction house officials, said that they were Block, who is now chief executive for North and South America for Phillips de Pury & Luxembourg auction house and runs its jewelry department, and Curiel, the Times reported.

Sotheby’s is a unit of Sotheby’s Holdings.

Taubman’s lawyers said they thought the two subordinates, whom they did not identify, discussed changing the buyers’ premium in 1992 and that Brooks and Davidge knew of these discussions, the Times reported. The lawyers for Taubman did not say whether these actions were legal or not.

A year ago, Brooks pleaded guilty to fixing sellers’ commissions but not buyers’ fees. She has agreed to testify against Taubman in exchange for a deal that includes not bringing additional criminal antitrust charges against her.

Taubman has steadfastly denied any wrongdoing, saying that Brooks acted without his knowledge.

The move is part of a strategy to build a case that Taubman had no knowledge of the day-to-day activities at Sotheby’s and to damage Brooks’s credibility, the Times reported. She has contended that she had no role in fixing buyers’ premiums, only the fees charged to sellers.

“I think we’re entitled to the conversations she was aware of so we can cross-examine her,” Fiske argued. But Judge Daniels rejected his request for the time being, telling Fiske that at this point in the proceeding, he was entitled only to information that showed illegal wrongdoing, the Times reported.

John J. Greene, the lead prosecutor, said that there were conversations he described as between “lower management officials” from the two auction houses, but he said that the Justice Department’s information with regard to the buyers’ premium was “only general” and that Brooks was not involved in illegal conduct regarding the buyers’ premium, the Times reported.

Judge Daniels agreed to postpone the trial until Nov. 5 at the request of the prosecutors, who were unable to enter their Lower Manhattan offices for two weeks because of the attack on the World Trade Center.

Curiel, contacted in Switzerland by JCK, refused to comment about the case. When asked if he thought he would have to testify, he said, “I do not know. So far nobody has called me.”

JCK has so far been unable to contact Block.