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by Thomas Hoving
|In his 17-year tenure as chairman of the board and principal stockholder of Sotheby's, Al Taubman gave the institution a hell of a ride.
A good ride, too.
He took a disheveled, dispirited near-anachronism, faded after the waning years of dynamo retailer-salesman-showman Peter Wilson (he who invented black tie auctions and thrust the stodgy joint into "high society") and electrified it financially, making it burgeon in volume and power. An unusually creative spirit in the otherwise banal field of shopping malls, Taubman found his real creative niche at Sotheby's. He transformed the art world for the better by his astute business inventions and cutting-edge practices at the house. Sure, some people moaned that the great age of art auctioning was over when this "social-climbing vulgarian" hyped every sale as the one "of the Century" and initiated such "loathsome" activities as loaning potential bidders money. But, hey, that's marketing.
Revenues soared. Great works flooded to Sotheby's. The stock boomed. Lots of people made lots of money.
But for all his dedication and genius, Al Taubman never got the basic point about what Sotheby's had to be. Honest. The opposite of caveat emptor. Clean. Never-a-scandal. Caesar's wife. Or, to quote from a renowned 1928 court of appeals ruling, "Not honesty alone but the punctilio of an honor the most sensitive."
The house was wracked with scandals and crippled by suspicious activities during Taubman's flamboyant rule. He could have, but never did, get the point that to raise the auction house to unmatched heights and to become the ruling power in the world of art commerce, his primary mission was to root out all the sleazy dealings that Sotheby's old-timers used to call "the shady side." Sure, at Sotheby's Taubman was a man of exceptional brilliance, gifted with uncanny business smarts. But he completely blew it by never clueing into what the basic mission was all about -- it's honesty, stupid!
It's too early to tell if the new crowd at Sotheby's has gotten or will get this fundamental point. The new chairman, Michael Sovern, may have an inkling of the desperate need to clean house and to proclaim that honesty and integrity is what Sotheby's is all about, although so far in his nanosecond-long career he has proclaimed that the ruling hierarchy has lost only two top officials. That's not encouraging.
I don't know how an ex-University president and lawyer will be able to scope out the infinitely devious workings of the big-time art market, but I wish him luck. Maybe he ought to gather up a crack team of seasoned art denizens from outside the company (including some of the devotees of the "shady side") to brief him on the malevolent goings-on that have always plagued the art auction biz.
He ought to have his ears filled with how antiquities smuggled out of Turkey and Sicily are laundered in Switzerland and England and how false provenances are manufactured and how the goods are stored in warehouses owned by auction houses until statutes of limitations run out, or how some auction houses have in the past owned works of art they sell as "Property of a Gentleman," and how bids are really rigged, and who the phone bidders are. And how some auction houses once took pride in being able for a fee to have any work smuggled out of Italy or other countries. And how a bunch of furniture fakes were mysteriously sold as genuine despite the sharp eyes of auction professionals. Sovern should dig assiduously into every scandal -- real or suspected -- that Sotheby's has ever been involved in since Peter Wilson and see if there's any similar nonsense still going on.
I'm buoyed by the reports that Henry Kravis, a Sotheby's board member, acted as point-man for the resignations of Taubman and the chief executive officer. I've always felt he got a bum rap for his role in the "Barbarians at the Gates" RJR-Nabisco buy-out. Although the record shows a man devoted to sharp dealings and tough bargaining, unlike so many others in that somewhat sorry saga, Kravis always conducted himself ethically. I have a feeling that he has a chance to guide Sotheby's into that all-or-nothing punctilio of honor status. (But he ought to resign his board membership of the Metropolitan Museum to cleanse himself of any lingering conflict-of-interest doubts.)
Sotheby's is too important for the grand and growing art market to collapse or limp along living with hypocrisy, launching ever more investigations into their questionable procedures (always peopled by insiders) that fade away or discover no real instances of illegal stuff. Now is the time for absolute purity. It's Tiffany-time. It's the Federal Reserve of the art trade time.
Come on Kravis, Sovern and whoever remains of the professional staff who's free of a scintilla of scandal, please really, really clean house and let everyone know what happened.
THOMAS HOVING is former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.