The Book, Cat, & Cat Book Lovers Almanac

of historical trivia regarding books, cats, and other animals. Actually this blog has evolved so that it is described better as a blog about cats in history and culture. And we take as a theme the advice of Aldous Huxley: If you want to be a writer, get some cats. Don't forget to see the archived articles linked at the bottom of the page.

January 31, 2016

January 31, 1924

Our post today concerns the menagerie of malfeasance, and the vigor of an old, old, metaphor, the one Forbes used for a headline on the trial of Alfred Taubman (January 31, 1924 to April 17, 2015). We quote below from an 2001 article titled: "Taubman Log: Cat And Mouse." 

First though we need some context. Taubman according to what I read, had to drop out of high school to support his family. He became a billionaire developing shopping centers, (some say he invented them, but if that were true, I wonder that all his obits didn't mention this) and after events during his chairmanship of Sotheby's auction house, was charged with price-fixing in collusion with Christies.  Our information comes from Taubman's obituary on Artlyst.

Taubman ....bought the ailing, privately held Sotheby’s Auctioneers in 1983 for $124 million dollars, taking the company public on the NY stock exchange. Over the next five years, Taubman transformed Sotheby's, putting his protégé Diana D. Brooks in the job of CEO. By 1989, Sotheby’s overtook arch-rival Christie’s with year end results of $2.9 billion to Christie’s $2.1 billion.

Another obit (Blouininfo) shares this detail:

At the time,
[he bought Sotheby's] Taubman was considered a white knight for saving the Georgian era auction house from less patrician hands, having beaten out fellow American businessmen Marshall Cogan and Steven Swid, thanks in part to high-profile backers, including art collecting friend Henry Ford II. That deal was the subject of Jeffrey Hogrefe’s “Wholly Unacceptable: The Bitter Battle for Sotheby’s,” published by Morrow in 1986.

And back to Artlyst:

All came to an end when the global art market suddenly dropped in 1990 and both Christie's and Sotheby's colluded in a price-fixing scheme, involving the commissions charged to buyers and vendors. They also agreed to stop poaching exclusive lists of special clients from one another. Taubman was jailed for a year and a day, age 77. He was also fined $7.7m. Brooks his CEO-protégée escaped jail by testifying against her boss, who was charged for coming up with the scheme, along with fellow chairman Sir Anthony Tennant of Christie’s, also indicted but as he was in London steered clear of the American justice system. Sotheby’s and Christie’s were fined over $250m in a class action and were forced to pay back millions in commissions to buyers and sellers.

During the 2001 trial, Forbes provided this update:

"Taubman Log: Cat And Mouse":

....In direct testimony, Christopher M. Davidge, former CEO of Christie’s, said Sir Anthony Tennant, the auction house’s chairman, instructed him to implement a price-fixing agreement between Tennant and A. Alfred Taubman, chairman of Sotheby’s. In the case now being tried in a Manhattan federal court, Taubman’s lawyers have conceded that there was an agreement between the rival auctioneers, but their task in cross-examining Davidge was to establish him as a liar in implicating Taubman.

Over two days, Scott Muller, a member of Taubman’s retinue of attorneys, parried with Davidge, suggesting the various reasons why the jury might disbelieve both him and the various notes and memoranda that supported his account. Davidge and Muller fell into a pattern: Davidge would freely concede a large point, and the attorney would then press him to admit a small one, growing more and more desperate when the witness refused to cooperate.

Davidge conceded that while the price-fixing plot was in operation, he concealed it from the London-based Christie’s board, from government investigators and even from the company’s lawyers. He admitted he participated in the scheme in spite of a clause in his employment contract that forbids him from “doing anything harmful to the company.”

Davidge admitted he signed an agreement, terminating his employment, in which he stated that he had made “no material breach” of his earlier employment contract. The termination agreement entitled him to a payment of $8 million over time. He admitted he was bound to cooperate with Christie’s, and that meant he had to cooperate with the government. Otherwise, he might not receive the final payment of the money owed him–or a lucrative consulting contract with Christie’s owners–and might even have to pay money back.

“I lied…yes…I did not tell the truth…. That’s correct…and I knew it was a lie,” Davidge said, over and over. But then he would draw the line.

When a Christie’s lawyer asked him if he had colluded with Sotheby’s , Davidge said, he told him he had not. Lying to lawyers is something Muller seemed to take quite personally and he whipped himself into a froth: “You looked them straight in the eye, and you said no–didn’t you, sir?”

“I don’t know if I looked him in the eye, but I did say no,” replied Davidge.

And so it went. Muller was the cat, a clumsy, frustrated cat. Davidge played the elegant mouse, darting away from trouble while trying to hide his amusement....

Davidge, who has been granted immunity from prosecution, kept a file of documents that the government contends created a record of the Christie’s-Sotheby’s plot. These documents include a handwritten note apparently from Taubman to Tennant documenting Christie’s “giveaways” to clients, a handwritten memorandum from Tennant to Davidge and Davidge’s own notes concerning his meetings with Brooks, whom he called his “special friend.”....

The giveaways, such as agreeing to low or even zero seller commissions and offering sellers guarantees and low-interest loans, led to ruinous price competition between the centuries-old auction houses. Taubman, the government contends, approached Tennant and asked if he would cooperate in ending the practices and creating a schedule of nonnegotiable seller commissions. (The auction houses also charge commissions–or “premiums”–to buyers, but only sellers are in a position to negotiate for terms.)....

The Blouininfo obit has this summary:

After his release from prison in 2003, a slimmer and more thoughtful Taubman, who learned how to cook instant oatmeal during this stretch and advised inmates on improving their lot, soldiered on with his various philanthropic activities, including his longtime support of the Detroit Institute of Arts. By 2005 he sold off the rest of his controlling stake in Sotheby’s and penned a nicely ghost-written memoir in 2007, “Threshold Resistance: The Extraordinary Career of a Luxury Retailing Pioneer.”

Alfred Taubman died a billionaire.

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