Christopher Mason, The Art of the Steal: Inside the Sotheby's-Christie's Auction House Scandal (Putnam)
by Adrian Dannatt
Christopher Mason, The Art of the Steal: Inside the Sothebys-Christies Auction House Scandal, 406 pp., Putnam, $26.95.
Financial scandals have become so frequent and fleeting they hardly seem worthy of attention. No sooner have they made the front page than they vanish again and everything carries on as before, apparently as if nothing had happened. The Sothebys-Christies dooh-dah seemed typical of such a pseudo-event, a media-driven storm in a teacup about a minor infringement of business etiquette, which indeed soon enough died down and disappeared, leaving both auction houses still in business, still charging commissions as before.
The remarkable thing about Christopher Masons book is that long after this stuff could be considered topical, just as it fades from public consciousness, he has managed to transform this laborious and complex case into a genuinely entertaining page-turner. In the case of this reader, who had paid no attention whatsoever to the soi-disant scandal at the time, The Art of the Steal provided not only a source of retroactive outrage at the complex shenanigans but also a larger moral tale about justice and deceit.
This reader not only had to be converted from his absolute initial disinterest in the topic but also from a rather more personal suspicion of the author.
Indeed having long been unconvinced by the extreme, exaggerated Englishness of Mr. Mason as he made the social rounds of Manhattan, it was easy to start the rumor that he in fact originally hailed from Detroit. To my satisfaction this story was later repeated to me, sotto voce, by an American socialite while we were listening to Mason deliver a birthday song for Philip Johnson over lunch at the Plaza Hotel. (This random choice of Detroit of my part was oddly validated, as the city features in Masons book as Taubmans HQ.)
Mason was obviously very talented in his earlier incarnation as a singer-songwriter, a hired composer and pianist who played the grandest functions, but the bite of his sung-satire always seemed compromised by a certain desire to integrate more fully with the great and good he sang about.
This understandable urge is also surely encouraged by the writing of pieces on the habitation and décor of the wealthy, Mr. Masons more recent employment. But those of us who feared Christopher Mason might be turning into the poor mans Hamish Bowles will be relieved by the quality of prose and integrity of research revealed throughout this exemplary book.
In fact, Mason is revealed as the very opposite of an English snob, rather he maintains a most American respect for self-made money as opposed to inherited titles. For it is Alfred Taubman who comes out of the story as a truly touching fall-guy, a larger-than-life well-meaning tycoon, and one whose lavish lifestyle does nothing to diminish authorial or reader sympathy. One of Masons many strengths is in making his cast vividly three-dimensional, so that Taubman seems like a party guest one has actually met and been amused or amazed by. We learn unexpected facts: that his first name is Adolf, dropped for obvious reasons; that his long support of the African-American community of Michigan made Rosa Parks elle-même keen to testify in court to his integrity; that the black jurors wanted to find him not guilty.
We also learn that being dyslexic, Taubman has no interest and capacity for numbers but is an almost entirely visual person, with a genuine passion for art (the opposite of Diana Brooks, his one-time deputy and accuser). The book ends with Taubman in jail, handled with just the right tone of pathos and comedy.
By contrast to big Al, the English aristocrats -- Sir Anthony Tennant of Christies and Lord Camoys of Sothebys -- seem odious, overbearing and arrogant, to a degree whereby they were in their way responsible for ensuing events. In a chart of Masons villains the toffs come unexpectedly high. This socio-economic ranking of culprits is aided by Masons fetish for physical stature, every character is immediately introduced as either being extremely tall (the aristocrats) or progressively small, working down the class scale towards the chief culprit, Christopher Davidge, who is portrayed more or less as a proletarian midget.
Davidges tinyness becomes a very funny running joke in the book, along with numerous references to his hair-do, outfits and overweening vanity. Which makes it all the stranger that no solo image of Davidge is provided, just one small photograph in which he can hardly be distinguished, bled to the margin. By contrast, the other main culprit, Dede Brooks, is treated to four separate photographs, reflecting her great notoriety in the U.S., the archetypal female executive we love-to-hate. But Mason is scrupulously fair in his treatment of La Brooks, making her come all-too alive as a dynamic, headstrong figure whose genuine love of Sothebys turns into a dictatorial mania for having her own way at all costs, as a character comments, Look, its Lady Macbeth.
Mason brings out Brooks wealthy background and lays rightful emphasis on the strange similarities with her brother Andy, who went bankrupt from accounting fraud in his own business, an unusual family double-act. We learn of numerous instances of nastiness, from frightening shouting fits in the corridors of power.to Brooks suddenly taking over the auctioneers podium for the Jackie Onassis sale (having also attended Miss Porters Academy it must have seemed a dynastic right).
Importantly Mason establishes that Brooks did actual harm to actual people; the vaunted price-fixing scheme was not a victimless crime. Some 400 Sothebys workers lost their jobs and most of those still employed were dependent on stock options in the company, retirement money essentially wiped out by Brooks actions and their consequences.
But despite all this fine juicy stuff, despite her family home later becoming John Lennons Long Island retreat, Brooks is never that interesting a villain. In the end shes just a square old workaholic bossy businessperson, whereas her counterpart at Christies comes out as far more interesting if not diabolic.
As with Miltons Satan, Davidge is the most fascinating character in the book and Mason gives us a rounded portrait of this extraordinary survivor, an evil guy, as he is called several times or, more memorably, slippery as a jellied eel in a bucket of snot. As with the other characters, Mason provides fruity background detail: that Davidges mother went off with his teenage best friend; and that he underwent painful adult circumcision as part of his conversion to Judaism. By the end Davidge emerges as a compelling anti-hero and complete immoral victor, married for a third time to a beautiful, wealthy young Indian, paid off with vast sums by his ex-employers (thus gaining some $13 million), fêted worldwide as an attractive cad, and without a criminal charge to his name.
Davidge epitomizes the difference between what happened in America and Britain throughout this case, the American participants going through harrowing legal proceedings, suffering fines, trials and prison terms, while those who wisely stayed secure in England survived unscathed. Mason makes the point that this difference between how the crime of price fixing was perceived on either side of the Atlantic partly led to its occurrence. Masons final conclusion that Sir Anthony Tennant and Christopher Davidge -- the two people who may have owed the most but paid the least -- continued their lives unscathed must also ensure that this book will not be published in libel-litigious Britain.
What makes The Art of the Steal even more impressive as a chunky good read, an up-market airport novel of property and wealth in which all characters are real people, is the sheer amount of research Mason had to crunch to come up with his amusing and concise narrative. As he notes, the book is based on more than 2,400 interviews conducted by himself with over 300 sources, everyone from convicts to Coronets, not to mention 2,145 transcript pages and 300 documents from the Taubman trial, as well as nearly 2,000 pertinent press clippings. That none of this shows, that the story flows so seamlessly and grippingly is really a remarkable achievement.
Masons main advantage is his aforementioned ability to delineate characters and speed the action along through the thickets of judicial and financial detail, holding the readers hand so they are never sink into statistical bogs.
The book is also packed with useful information about a wide variety of semi-forgotten art world practices and events. Artnet.com itself receives honorable mention as the source of insider rumors, and we learn of one of its potential precursors, when in 1993 Centrox suggested to the two houses they should pool their catalogues and auction results into a central database.
Considering the increasingly shoddy state of publishing, Putnam should also be congratulated on putting out so intricate a tale with so few errors. The only typos needing correction for the paperback being the top line of page 110 and the Impressionist expert Michel Strauss being deprived of his double-s. All in all, the fundamental pleasure of this book, the temporary downfall of two arrogant firms and their pompous executives should not be forgotten, in the words of dealer Alex Wengraf, As far as Im concerned, anything that hurts them is good for the trade. Theyve always portrayed themselves as great institutions when really theyre just dealers like the rest of us and on the whole they are less honorable than the independent dealers.
But most conclusively Mason makes clear the truly baffling part of the whole saga -- that all these secret meetings between the two auction houses were completely unnecessary. Sothebys and Christies would have followed each others lead anyway, as they had always done. As Henry Wyndham, Sothebys London chairman, explains, I dont know why there needed to be a conversation at all. As you can see, we changed our commission and there was no need to talk. With a duopoly, its like two people selling tomatoes in the street. If one person raises or lowers their prices, the other ones going to follow.
So why did Davidge and Brooks bother with these unnecessary meetings?
Mainly, it seems because they enjoyed the mystery and glamour and self-importance of such illegal rendezvous. Davidge actually relished flying to New York on Concorde to meet with Brooks in the JFK parking lot and flying back again immediately. Both houses also made huge amounts of money out of changing commissions and establishing non-negotiable rates, but this could have happened anyway in its own due course, without skullduggery.
According to one source, collusion took place only because Davidge and Brooks were two egos out of control, power-mad and fancying themselves as great deal makers. Or, as Taubman says to Mason when in jail, Why she did this I dont know. I assume it was greed and power. She thought she was so big and strong and such a big deal, and that she was beyond touching in any way. Im taking her place in jail.
Something of a society personality himself, Mason was finally able to meet Sir Anthony Tennant as a fellow guest over Christmas and New Year at a financiers Hampshire estate. As Mason admits, his perspective radically altered my perception of the case, a nice way of putting it, since Tennant actually emerges as one of the three clear villains of the drama. Masons next book subject is obvious; after all, not only was his authorial jacket photograph taken by Peter Bacanovic, but he is thanked twice in the acknowledgements. Considering Bacanovics key role in the case of Martha Stewart, the Dede Brooks of home-bakery, with such insider knowledge at his disposal Masons account of the Stewart saga will doubtless prove as effortlessly entertaining and well informed as this current work.
ADRIAN DANNATT writes for the Art Newspaper and other journals.