A damning story of dirty dealing in the art world.
In the early 1980s, the auction house Sotheby’s was in trouble, with a faltering economy and its chairman’s profligacy threatening to bring the venerable institution to its knees. Enter shopping-mall magnate Alfred Taubman, who appreciated the gloss Sotheby’s would add to his resume and the swell parties he would be able to attend. It didn’t take long for Taubman to realize that business could be conducted more profitably if certain niceties were observed—namely, agreeing with fellow auctioneer Christie’s upon buyer’s premiums and commission rates “mutually beneficial to both firms.” There follows, in Mason's fair reporting, a tale of “divvying up big estates on a one-for-me, one-for-you basis,” attempting to ensure that all lots at auction commanded the highest possible price. British law and American law clashed over what exactly constituted collusion, but a Christie’s executive squealed, quailing at the prospect of besmirching his name, let alone jail time. The whole rotten edifice crumbled, as Mason intricately details. Suddenly, what was thought to be the ultimate in fair bidding became a joke, revealing “a deceitful, secretive criminal scheme whose object and purpose was illegal profit.” (Though fabulously rich clients wanting to “deaccession a few major pieces” may not prompt excessive amounts of reader sympathy.) The defendants didn’t even demonstrate a measure of contrition: “Blinded by ambition, you substituted shame for fame,” the judge lectured Sotheby’s chief Diana Brooks, who in his view traded her title of CEO “to be branded a thief and common criminal.” Taubman skipped with minor punishment, and Mason baldly suggests that connections served him both on the way up and on the way down.
Journalist Mason calls into question exactly what drives the art market at so breathtakingly profitable a pace.