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The Art of the Steal: Inside the Sotheby's-Christie's Auction… (edition 2005)

by Christopher Mason

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1194101,247 (3.61)4
Member:pbadeer
Title:The Art of the Steal: Inside the Sotheby's-Christie's Auction House Scandal
Authors:Christopher Mason
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The Art of the Steal: Inside the Sotheby's-Christie's Auction House Scandal by Christopher Mason

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Review of The Art of the Steal – Christopher Mason Putnam 2004

This book reads like a work of fiction but it is a work of investigative journalism and is based on a real life scandal that hit the trans-Atlantic world of high class art auctioneering in the 1990s, when the respected internationally renowned companies of Christie and Sotheby, were involved in price fixing. In America such practices were contrary to the Sherman anti-trust act and were criminal; in Britain collusive business practices were frowned on and could result in civil claims and fines. The period covered by this book is roughly the early 1980s to 2000.

This book is racy , fast, very readable and still has an appeal over a decade after the conclusion of the legal cases taken through the US judicial system. Conversations are reconstructed based on an extraordinary 2400 interviews of more than 300 sources (according to the end notes of the author). The story is almost a detective story but with the difference - you know the outcome but it’s a case of who did it, to whom , why and when. It is a story that is twice told firstly in introducing the reader to the seemingly glamorous world of the buying and selling of art through auction and then a retelling of the same story but this time through the eyes of the lawyers and the evidence that came before the courts .

There had been earlier scandals of misrepresentations about sales; questionable attributions , the 1975 collusion of the two firms over premiums ( the latter resulting in a legal slap over the wrist and a small fine following large legal charges). Earlier chairs and executives had played tough. In effect there were only two significant auction houses that mattered by the latter part of the 20th century – Sotheby’s and Christies and increasingly they had an international reach. This was a duopoly of note. There was certainly plenty of temptation to both compete and collude. Positions in Sothebys or Christies were highly sought after by retired politicians and recent arts graduates.

It’s an old human story of the excitement of the chase, greed and ambition clouding sound business judgment; ethics and morals disappeared as the key top people in the two firms met to agree to set and to effectively push up commissions (paid by sellers) and premiums (paid by buyers) on sales for both buyers and sellers of art works in a cut throat world in London and New York. If you are interested in collecting art, antiques, jewelry and beautiful objects ; if you have ever visited the auction houses in New Bond St in London or New York this behind the scenes glimpse of that heady mix of power, large sums of money, fast profits, exceptional expertise and sharp business practice will appeal. Mason attempts a warts and all portrait of the many personalities involved ( a dramatis personae list labels the players); and of the principal characters, the Americans Dede Brooks ( the remarkable female Chief Executive of Sotheby’s. 1994-1999), Alfred Taubman (chairman and controlling shareholder of Sotheby’s 1983-200), the Englishmen, Christopher Davidge (the thrice married Chief executive of Christie’s 1993 – 1999) and Sir Anthony Tennant ( the titled businessman banker and Chairman of Christie’s between 1993 and 1996).

None emerge from the story as likeable characters; all lose their reputations despite everyone protesting innocence and that their honesty and reputation was ironically their highest valued asset. It was Davidge who first reach the legal investigators and turned state’s very cooperative witness in exchange for avoiding judicial charges; Davidge too did the smarter deal with his own company walking away with a handsome settlement and his own legal costs covered. Tennant kept away from American shores and declined to be a witness and thus avoided prosecution. Ultimately the rap was taken by the elderly Taubman, self-made retail wizard , socially ambitious businessman and philanthropist who served a year long jail sentence. Taubman’s contribution to the theory of retailing business was in the phrase “threshold resistence”. Dede Brooks fell from a giddy height in business was perhaps the most damaged as she was in her prime; she bore her own legal costs, and was treated very harshly by Sotheby’s and was sentenced to house arrest, fines and community service. She emerges as a tragic figure. Of course all the main players accused one another of lying and while conceding that meetings of business rivals took place denied any wrong doing. Davidge and Tennant were like eels in slipped out of responsibility and loyalty. The auctioneering business remained cutthroat and ultimately the deals fell apart. All the participants sought to protect their backs. The lawyers earned megabucks from their clients.

The tantalizing question is was the conspiracy hatched between the chairmen of the two companies and was then handed on in the form of instructions to their CEOs or did the chief executives of the two firms manage to connive and make the deals on their own? Why did they conspire as they did when they knew they were breaking the law ? Was it the economics of the art market; excessive competition,

The author fails although sharp in his use of descriptive adjectives, fails to pass judgment and does not come to a conclusion ; he does not tell you what he thinks actually happened ( though I thought his sympathies lay with Taubman and Brooks). More attention to grammar, proof reading and closer editing would have improved what is an entertaining book. As a serious study in economics, there is too little analysis of monopoly, duopoly and cartels. If two firms battle to virtual business death does this not in itself open the path to takeover and monopoly; or what of the scenario where mortal weakness of two firms then opens the prospect of a new third player becoming more effective? Nor is there much on the history of the auction houses; the trends in prices , margins, profits, returns and price differentials are lightly sketched; there are no secondary sources or other books or studies consulted. The quotation from the 18th C father of economics, Adam Smith is a nugget worth repeating –“people in the same trade seldom meet together even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public or in some contrivance to raise prices”. This is certainly what judge and jury thought. ( )
  Africansky1 | Apr 25, 2013 |
I'll admit to having heard tidbits of this "scandal" at the time it happened, but it was so outside my personal interests and circle, I never thought twice about it. But since that time, I have taken more interest in the art/auction world, purely as an outside observer, so this was a fun read.

The book covers the basic backgrounds of the auction world both before and during the time of the scandal, doing so in a eminently readable way completely comfortable to the layman. The author also does a spectacular job fleshing out the personalities of the key players to the point that you become invested in their futures. I didn't know enough about the scandal to know exactly how it player out for the individual people, so building them up as real people made their factual "endings" that much more powerful.

Even if you are not interested in art, this is a great courtroom drama read, completely factual. Maybe not as exciting as an OJ Simpson trial, but the details which are included does force the reader to re-examine exactly how it played out and the fairness of both the US and British legal systems. ( )
  pbadeer | Dec 1, 2012 |
Subtitled “Inside the Sotheby’s-Christie’s Auction House Scandal”, Mason’s book introduced me an industry I knew very little about and a scandal I had never heard of. Introducing readers to multimillionaire tycoon Alfred Taubman, Dede Brooks (the CEO of Sotheby’s and the first woman to ever hold the position) and Christopher Davidge (the British CEO of Christie’s) as well as a whole host of other characters, Mason lays out how the world’s most famous auction houses cheated their clients out of millions with a price-fixing scheme.

Except I’m still not sure how exactly these two auction houses went about it; something about sliding commission scales not up for negotiation. It was clear to me from Mason’s book that the two CEOs were in collusion illegally. I just wasn’t sure exactly how the scheme was being carried out. It might had helped if I had noticed the charts at the back of the book at the beginning but, ultimately, there needed to be a stronger and clearer explanation of how commissions and pricing and percentages were defrauding buyers and sellers.

Read more on my blog: http://ardentreader.wordpress.com/2011/09/06/the-art-of-the-steal/ ( )
  theardentreader | Sep 6, 2011 |
If this book had been about 100 pages long it would have been fascinating. Maybe someone who works in art or actually at Christie's or Sotheby's would be interested in the intricate detail of annual sales figures and specific deals but it is dry and overwhelming for the casual reader. The meat of the story is the collusion between the two great houses and what it meant for the art world. Editors-take note: every story does not have to be a dissertation! Remember your audience. ( )
  montano | Jul 12, 2007 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0425202410, Paperback)

The Art of the Steal tells the story of several larger-than-life figures - the billionaire tycoon Alfred Taubman; the most powerful woman in the art world, Dede Brooks; and the wily British executive Christopher Davidge - who conspired to cheat their clients out of millions of dollars. It offers an unprecedented look inside this secretive, glamorous, gold-plated industry, describing just how Sotheby's and Christie's grew from clubby, aristocratic businesses into slick international corporations. And it shows how the groundwork for the most recent illegal activities was laid decades before the perpetrators were caught by federal prosecutors.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:19:49 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

"The Art of the Steal tells the story of several larger-than-life figures - the billionaire tycoon Alfred Taubman; the most powerful woman in the art world, Dede Brooks; and the wily British executive Christopher Davidge - who conspired to cheat their clients out of millions of dollars. It offers an unprecedented look inside this secretive, glamorous, gold-plated industry, describing just how Sotheby's and Christie's grew from clubby, aristocratic businesses into slick international corporations. And it shows how the groundwork for the most recent illegal activities was laid decades before the perpetrators were caught by federal prosecutors."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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