The Bell Tolls for Taubman

“I don’t have much business right now,” one art consultant said confidentially to another at the Phillips auction house’s party for the Smooke Collection last week. “Why don’t we close up shop for a few weeks and just go to the Taubman trial?”

In a corner of the Matisse- and Modigliani-filled room, a clutch of former auction-house employees latched on to the theme. “How do you get in? Are there tickets?” asked an expert who’d been inspecting nineteenth-century paintings on sale in this week’s marquee auctions. “Can I come, too?” begged a P.R. woman, her hand raised grammar-school style.

For the incestuous art world, where auction-house proles can grow up to be lordly dealers, the price-fixing trial has a certain Freudian tone. Alfred Taubman, the former Sotheby’s chairman – and still its largest shareholder – plays the role of overbearing father, and Dede Brooks, his former protégée, is the bossy big sister. “Of course he’s guilty,” said one spectator, relishing the Lear-like scene. “He’s such a megalomaniac.”

Down at the courthouse, there’s less unanimity. Taubman had a brace of white-shoe lawyers – Davis Polk stars Robert Fiske (a former Whitewater prosecutor) and Scott Muller (rumored to be on the shortlist for a top post in the Bush Justice Department) – probing every possible loophole before the trial begins on November 8.

In an effort to prevent former Christie’s head Christopher Davidge from testifying, Fiske protested to Judge George Daniels that Davidge’s $8 million severance amounts to nothing more than 30 pieces of silver. Fiske even questioned prosecutor John Greene’s ethics in the matter.

But Greene is a cannier lawyer than his Barney Rubble-like demeanor suggests, and his shambling delivery, while comical on Fifth Avenue, is said to play well with juries. And he’s successfully fended off the $600-an-hour legal talent – though word came down last week that the jury would not hear of some key Sotheby’s admissions, including Taubman’s $186 million payment to protect the company from angry shareholders and art buyers.

What the jury will hear is a convoluted tale of he-said/she-said. Taubman claims executives at Sotheby’s and Christie’s colluded without his knowledge. But Brooks, who pleaded guilty on October 5, 2000, will testify that she was acting with his full support. To break this tie, the government will produce Davidge, whose notes confirm that he had secret meetings with Brooks. Though Davidge never met Taubman, he is expected to testify that his superior, Christie’s chairman Sir Anthony Tennant, wrote a memo confirming Taubman was onboard in the price-fixing scheme.

The defense has a simpler strategy: Since no one but Brooks can say what Taubman knew or when he knew it, Fiske and Muller will poke holes in her credibility. One insider pointed out, “That shouldn’t take long.”

Former staffers at the duopoly say it’s like watching a movie made from one’s life. Only in this version, everything is reversed: Taubman, the bluff friend of titled Europeans, is now seen as a frail old man struggling to save his wounded reputation. And Dede, the super-Wasp wondergirl, has been shown to the world as an ambition-blind martinet. And those same auction-house veterans feel bitterly betrayed by the discovery that their doggedly competitive business was actually rigged at the top. But the wounded feelings only seem to go so far. With only rich people inconvenienced, it’s hard for even the lumpen aristocracy of the art world to call for heads. Or, as a specialist put it: “No one deserves to go to jail over this.”

The Bell Tolls for Taubman