By Karen Gullo
Associated Press writer
WASHINGTON, D.C. (AP) – A federal grand jury in New York indicted the former chairmen of Sotheby’s Holdings Inc. and Christie’s International, the world’s two largest auction houses, on price-fixing charges, the Justice Department said May 3.
The indictment charges A. Alfred Taubman, former chairman at Sotheby’s, and Anthony J. Tennant, former chairman at Christie’s, with conspiring to fix auction commission rates charged to sellers in the United States and elsewhere from 1993 to 1999, the department said.
The department said the two auction houses engaged in a six-year conspiracy and charged US sellers at least $400 million in commissions. They reportedly control more than 90 percent of the world’s live auctions of art works, jewelry and furniture.
“I am surprised and deeply disappointed by the charges made against me today,” Taubman said Wednesday, May 2 in a news release. “I am absolutely innocent.”
Sotheby’s current chairman, Michael Sovern, said no current employees were involved in or aware of any antitrust law violations. Sotheby’s is based in New York.
Tennant could not be reached at his home or office in England, where he resides. Christie’s had no comment, a press officer said. The company is based in London.
But Tennant’s lawyers, in a statement published in British newspapers Thursday, May 3 said their client would not go to the United States to face the charges.
“Sir Anthony wishes to make it clear that he is completely innocent of any involvement in price fixing,” the lawyers’ statement said. “As a UK subject, Sir Anthony is not subject to the jurisdiction of the US courts and, accordingly, he will not be taking part in any pending proceedings.”
The statement said Tennant’s role at Christie’s was to “chair the board and to perform high-level ambassadorial and client relationship duties on the company’s behalf. … Executive responsibilities rested with the chief executive.”
There is some question whether the things Tennant is charged with would be a crime in Britain and therefore whether US authorities can extradite him under British law.
If found guilty, Taubman and Tennant could face three years in prison and at least $350,000 in fines. The fines could be much larger – by law they might have to pay twice the amount they gained from the crime, or twice the loss suffered by customers, if either of those amounts adds up to more than $350,000.
Taubman was chairman at Sotheby’s from 1983 to 2000. Tennant was chairman at Christie’s from 1993 to 1996.
The indictment said Taubman and Tennant agreed to raise prices by fixing sellers’ commission rates, set nonnegotiable sellers’ commission schedules and exchanged customer information for the purpose of monitoring adherence to the commission schedules.
The Justice Department said the two undercut each other’s offers to sellers, costing sellers their principal bargaining tool.
“This case will show that these individuals mastered the art of price fixing,” said James A. Griffin, deputy attorney general in charge of the criminal antitrust enforcement program.
Last month a federal judge approved a $537 million settlement of price-fixing lawsuits brought by customers of Sotheby’s and Christie’s. The auction houses are sharing the cost of the settlement.
And in October 2000, Sotheby’s and its former chairman and chief executive, Diana D. Brooks, pleaded guilty to separate charges of fixing auction rates. Sotheby’s has been sentenced to pay $45 million; Brooks has not been sentenced, the Justice Department said.
Christie’s has been cooperating with the investigation under a leniency program that could protect the auction house from criminal prosecution if it voluntarily provides information to prosecutors.
The investigation is being handled by the antitrust division’s New York office and the FBI in New York.