Sotheby’s ex-chief convicted of price fixing

Former Sotheby’s chairman A. Alfred Taubman was found guilty on Wednesday of conspiring with the former head of rival Christie’s to fix commission fees in a multi-million dollar scam that shook the art world, Reuters reports.

The jury of eight men and four women deliberated for less than two days in the complicated case before convicting Taubman of hatching an international price fixing conspiracy in the 1990s with Anthony Tennant, the former chairman of rival auction house Christie’s.

Flanked by a team of lawyers, dressed in a three-piece gray suit and listening with the help of a wireless hearing aid, the Detroit real estate magnate sat stone still in the U.S. District Court in Manhattan while the unanimous verdict was read, Reuters reports.

When Taubman, 76, left the courthouse a short time later, he appeared shaken and declined to make a statement as he was ushered into a black Range Rover, Reuters reports.

Taubman, who is still the largest shareholder in Sotheby’s, will be sentenced on April 2 next year and faces up to three years in prison as well as heavy fines.

“We are of course very disappointed in the verdict, but we’re going to review our options and decide what to do next,” said Taubman’s attorney Robert Fiske, Reuters reports. He declined to say whether he planned to appeal.

Tennant, a resident of Britain, could not be extradited for the three-week trial. Both Taubman and Tennant have said they are not guilty of the charges.

The case rocked the rarefied world of art auctions with accusations of deceit, backstabbing, and shady deal making between the two houses, which together control about 90% of the world’s live auctions of art, jewelry and furniture.

The prosecution’s case hinged on the testimony of two former executives of the venerable auction houses, which have roots dating back to the 18th century.

Diana “Dede” Brooks, the former chief executive of Sotheby’s and once considered the most powerful woman in the art industry, testified that Taubman ordered her to collude with former Christie’s chief executive Christopher Davidge to set the commissions the houses charged customers to sell their art.

When the scheme started to unravel, she testified, her boss showed her a newspaper picture of herself and said she would ”look good in stripes,” Reuters reports.

Taubman’s lawyers countered by arguing that Brooks, who oversaw the sale of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ estate, bullied her boss and never told him about the price fixing scheme they accused her of arranging it with Davidge in the backseat of a limousine at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport, Reuters reports. They also tried to discredit Brooks by charging that she was cooperating in the case against her former boss in hopes of avoiding a three-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to conspiracy last year.

Such charges failed to win over jurors, who said they believed the testimony of Brooks and were convinced her boss hatched the scheme during 12 secret meetings in the early and mid-1990s with Tennant, his counterpart at Christie’s, Reuters reports.

“I actually believed Dede. I thought she was telling the truth,” Mike D’Angelo, a 51-year old postal employee who served as foreman of the jury, told reporters outside the courtroom, Reuters reports.

D’Angelo also said the New York jury was not persuaded by the so-called “dumb and hungry” defense which arose from testimony that Taubman would sometimes doze off during board meetings and was more interested in his lunch menu than the financial details of art auctions, Reuters reports. “I don’t care if you fall asleep,” he said. “You’re there and you know what’s going on.”

Another juror, Jeff Goodwin, a 42-year-old restaurant co-owner, said the jury was persuaded by Judge George Daniels’ instructions that in conspiracy cases the agreement is the crime rather than the success or failure of the plot, Reuters reports.

Sotheby’s previously pleaded guilty to an antitrust charge and agreed to pay a $45 million fine. Christie’s, which had been cooperating with the government, was not charged criminally for the scheme that operated between 1993 and 1999.

During that period, the two houses charged sellers in the United States at least $400 million in commissions.