It has always bothered me that a man as successful as A. Alfred Taubman, former owner of Sotheby’s auction house, and shopping mall magnate/billionaire was so passive in the great Sotheby’s Christie’s price fixing scandal in New York in 2001. The scandal led to Taubman’s conviction and incarceration for 9.5 months in the low security Federal Medical Center in Rochester, Minn. To many his silence was an acknowledgement of guilt. But it always seemed incongruous that the head of the most powerful auction house in the world at that time would have knowingly jeopardized his career and the company’s good standing and possibly very existence by entering into an illegal activity with arch rivals Christie’s.
Mind you, I still haven’t come to grips with why Martha Stewart, arguably one of the wealthiest and most powerful women in the world, would have risked her career for a few thousand dollars. But, the courts say she did. And the courts said that Taubman also committed a crime for which he was duly punished.
Taubman always maintained his innocence but never fought to protect it. Now, at age 83, he has decided it is time to finally speak out. In a memoir being published by HarperCollins entitled Threshold Resistance: The Extraordinary Career of a Luxury Retailing Pioneer he has admitted that his decision to remain silent went against his better judgement and instincts and was a critical mistake in his defense. “I should have gotten on the stand”, he said in a recent interview in Detroit.
In 2001 a federal jury in New York convicted Taubman, at the time Sotheby’s chairman, of plotting with his counterpart at Christie’s, Sir Anthony Tennant, to fix commission rates on goods sold. In the United States price fixing is a crime. In the UK it isn’t. In a bizarre series of events that are worthy of a John Grisham novel, a disgruntled Christie’s employee spilled the beans to federal authorities that ultimately led to Taubman’s conviction. Prosecutors said that Taubman and Tennant met secretly in 1993 to discuss fixing commission prices and fees and the testimony of several employees from both companies confirmed the meeting and the subsequent implementation of the plan. Their testimony, and in particular the testimony of Sotheby’s former chief executive Diana Brooks, put Taubman away.
Now, in his book, Taubman is taking aim at the former executives of both auction houses, and specifically Brooks who he said acted without his knowledge. He blames them, and federal prosecutors and the judge who oversaw the case, for the scandal that tarnished what had been up to then an incredible and accomplished career.
“I had served my time for others; people going about their lives…who had initiated, executed and lied about a serious crime for which they would receive little or no punishment,” he says in his book. He also says that he took a polygraph test to prove his innocence and passed.
Taubman said he wrote the book for his nine grandchildren. He wanted to explain to them in his own words his career and his side of the Sotheby’s scandal. Of his friends and family he said “They know me, and they know I wouldn’t have done such a stupid thing.”
I didn’t know A. Alfred Taubman, but I have to confess I still find it hard to believe that he did do such a stupid thing. Perhaps Mr. Grisham will help us all get the bottom of this.