NEW YORK — During a sale of American paintings she was conducting in May 1998, Diana D. Brooks, the president and chief executive of Sotheby's, looked down from the podium at a man in the audience who was waving his hand.
"Is that a bid, sir?" she inquired.
"No, I'm waving at my wife," the man said.
"That could be very expensive, sir," Brooks shot back. Her remark brought down the house.
Brooks is far less flippant these days. Last October she pleaded guilty to conspiring with arch auction rival Christie's to violate the Sherman Antitrust Act, and faces the possibility of three years in prison. Her fall from the pinnacle of the American establishment has been spectacular.
Once a role model, she has resigned not just from the elite auction house she headed, but as a trustee of Yale University, her alma mater, and from the board of Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co. Now the threat of bankruptcy looms over Brooks, once one of the most powerful women in the art world.
There are deep scars these days on the facade of Sotheby's Manhattan headquarters, which is undergoing major renovations. But inside, the scars are perhaps even deeper. Brooks was a highly visible, upbeat and charismatic leader who not only became the public presence of the 256-year-old auction house, but succeeded in dramatically modernizing and broadening its business. On her watch, profit rose steadily.
"She set the tone and was its voice. She enjoyed the limelight," said Allison E. Leeds, editor of the Magazine Antiques. "She did a lot to get that name in front of people's faces."
Many of Brooks' former colleagues feel stunned and betrayed. They look back, dissecting her actions, searching for signs of recklessness that they might have missed. Others are amazed that Brooks--"Dede" to most who know her--secretly met for more than six years with Christopher M. Davidge, Christie's then-chief executive, to fix commissions. They even exchanged such details as employee salaries to prevent staff from leveraging better pay by jumping ship to the competing house.
"It's like a John Le Carre novel, the meeting in out-of-the-way restaurants and in limousines," said one former colleague, who, like many people interviewed for this article would not allow their names to be used because they still have some loyalty to Brooks or they continue to do business with Sotheby's and Christie's.
"They played this competitive thing to the hilt," added a second former Sotheby's employee. "We hated Christie's. The thought of cooperating was so alien, and then to find out they were doing comparisons of salaries. It was the ultimate sellout."
Even after Brooks resigned last February--in the midst of the federal investigation--some co-workers refused to believe she was capable of doing anything wrong. "Her life was Sotheby's," said one executive of the auction house.
That faith was crushed when Brooks pleaded guilty to one felony count of conspiring to "suppress and eliminate competition" by fixing commission rates with Christie's. In court, Brooks said she was acting "at the direction of a superior at Sotheby's." And she only had one: A. Alfred Taubman.
When Taubman first met Brooks, the story goes, she was the only woman in a meeting, and he asked her to bring him a cup of coffee. "With pleasure," she reportedly replied before handing him a pile of documents and saying: "And can you photocopy these for me?" (Taubman has said the tale is apocryphal.)
Prosecutors have named Taubman, the Michigan shopping center developer and art collector who bought Sotheby's in 1983, as the target of their ongoing investigation. He was accused in court by Brooks, who has agreed to cooperate with government lawyers. The quality of the testimony and information she is providing will, in large degree, determine whether she goes to prison or is sentenced to probation, plus a sizable fine.
Taubman, 75, has flatly denied Brooks' claim and has not been charged. He has waged an aggressive campaign in the media and in the courts--seeking to subpoena documents from Christie's and question Davidge, who left Christie's in December 1999 and is reportedly in India.
"Whatever Ms. Brooks chose to do, she did completely on her own--without my knowledge or approval," Taubman said in a statement after Brooks appeared in court in October. He had resigned as chairman of Sotheby's in February at the same time as Brooks. "This clearly is not an easy decision for me," Taubman said at the time. Sotheby's immediately appointed William F. Ruprecht, a 20-year veteran of the auction house, who was managing director for North and South America, as president and chief executive. Former Columbia University president, Michael I. Sovern, was named chairman.