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Collusion Gets Sotheby's Ex-Chief a Prison Term

THE NATION

Art: One-year sentence for price-fixing comes despite concerns about Taubman's health.

April 23, 2002|JOHN J. GOLDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — A federal judge on Monday sentenced A. Alfred Taubman, the former chairman of Sotheby's, to a year in prison for conspiring with his counterpart at Christie's to fix commissions on items offered for auction.

U.S. District Judge George Daniels also ordered Taubman to pay a $7.5-million fine.

The collusion, which stifled competition between the two largest auction houses, cost customers millions of dollars and focused attention on shady business practices in the world of art and antiques.

"Price-fixing is a crime whether it is committed in a local grocery store or the hall of a great auction house," Daniels lectured the principal owner of Sotheby's.

"This was a deceitful, secretive criminal scheme whose whole object and purpose was criminal profit. This was a crime motivated not by desperation and need, but by arrogance and greed."

Rejecting a probation report that had recommended against prison time, Daniels said Taubman had failed to show contrition and had tried to blame others while portraying himself as the victim of a vicious scheme.

The judge said Taubman "clearly performed a supervisory and managerial role" in the conspiracy.

"Regardless of what heights he has obtained in life, no one is above the law," Daniels added.

The sentence was less than the three years that prosecutors wanted--and was mitigated, Daniels explained, by Taubman's poor health and history of philanthropy.

Testimonial letters from a broad cross-section of people--including former President Ford, Barbara Walters, former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger and members of Taubman's family--had urged leniency.

On Dec. 5, a jury in federal court in Manhattan convicted Taubman of plotting with Anthony J. Tennant--Christie's chairman from 1983 to 1996--to fix commissions on what sellers paid when they put artworks and other items up for bidding.

Prosecutors charged that the actions denied people who wanted to sell goods at both Sotheby's and Christie's their ability to bargain over fees.

(Tennant, who lives in England, cannot be extradited on antitrust charges.)

The chief witness against Taubman, a Michigan shopping center developer and art collector who bought the auction house in 1983, was Diana D. Brooks, who resigned in 2000 as Sotheby's chief executive officer and president.

Brooks pleaded guilty to violating the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 that prohibits unfair competition by maintaining a monopoly. She is scheduled to be sentenced Monday.

Taubman, a onetime investor in the Irvine Co. with Donald Bren, sat quietly in court and declined to make a statement before he was sentenced. But his lawyer, Robert B. Fiske Jr., presented the picture of a 78-year-old who had multiple strokes, three heart procedures, takes 26 pills a day and, as his physicians attest, has a life expectancy of 3.8 years.

He said Taubman's health could be seriously jeopardized in prison.

"The government says if Mr. Taubman does not go to jail, he won't suffer the consequences of his actions," Fiske told the court. "He is totally devastated. It has left his life in shambles. . . . He stands stripped of his reputation and his good name."

But Justice Department prosecutor John J. Greene disputed that Taubman was as infirm as the defense stated and said he would receive adequate care in prison.

"He hunts, he fishes, he plays golf," Greene said.

"Imprisonment is necessary . . . for lack of imprisonment sends a clear message that you can get away with it," the prosecutor told the court. "He did violate the law."

Daniels originally ordered Taubman to serve a one-year sentence. But the judge added a day at the request of Fiske, so that Taubman could be eligible to be released early for good behavior.

The judge told Taubman to report to prison authorities on Aug. 1.

Defense lawyers declined to say whether they would appeal.

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