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A. Alfred Taubman, from a Sotheby's corporate report.
Guilty
by Brook S. Mason


As 2002 gets underway, a large part of the art world is feeling a sense of relief at the conviction of former Sotheby's chairman A. Alfred Taubman after a 16-day trial on federal price fixing charges. He faces a maximum sentence of three years in prison along with a $350,000 fine. Sentencing is set for Apr. 2, 2002.

The central mystery of the case remains, however. What could have driven him to commit such a crime? With a total net worth approaching an estimated $1 billion, he hardly needed the money.

Taubman earned himself a heralded place in the New York social whirl with his purchase of the venerable auction house back in 1983. He also funded the A. Alfred Taubman Center for State and Local Government at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government along with the A. Alfred Taubman Medical Library, the A. Alfred Taubman Health Care Center and the A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, all at his alma mater, the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

His trial attorney, Robert Fiske, tried to play the "incredulity card," arguing that his client was so moneyed that he would not risk tarnishing his reputation by committing anti-trust violations. "At 70 years old, he was secure."

Was this 76-year-old creature with homes in New York, London, and Palm Beach, a Gulfstream jet and bottomless pockets of money driven by a particularly rapacious brand of greed?

Artnet Magazine asked Dr. Allan Manevitz, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry with New York Presbyterian Hospital-New York Weill Cornell Medical Center, what drives a highly successful entrepreneur to white collar crime. Dr. Manevitz is highly familiar with such personalities and others in his practice.

So is it blind fury in general or merely a fatal attraction to dangerous situations?

Dr. Manevitz believes a number a factors can come into play. "In some cases, some people in control with enormous amounts of power believe the rules don't necessarily apply to them. It's a short cut to winning so that finishing first is more important than the process of getting there. There can also be a narcissistic impulse with wanting to be on top," he says from his Sutton Place office.

"Then there is the element of greed, of not having enough," he adds.

Interestingly enough, it is possible for people to loose all perspective. "Since self-destructive people don't see their behavior as potentially dangerous they don't extend their thought processes to consider the consequences," says Manevitz, who counsels C.E.O.s and politicians, too.

Manevitz thinks that given the glitz and wealth of the go-go '80s, arrogance became the culture of the times.

But sheer insolent brashness is not the first sign of the path towards white-collar crime. "But arrogance can be a component in such a personality," concludes Manevitz, while adding that many arrogant people are actually ethical.

Although Taubman is expected to file an appeal, there is enormous certainty in the legal world that he will ultimately end up behind bars. Once lodged with fellow felons, surely this controlling Sotheby's shareholder will look back upon his glittering Upper East Side auction house. In the end, he had a crashing impact on both his own company's withering bottom line as well as that of his competitor, Christie's, which received amnesty for cooperating with the Justice Department investigation.

Both auction houses are still reeling, and rumored to be for sale. For one thing, the art market was considerably weaker in 2001, with far fewer world record prices than the previous year. Staff layoffs have been scored here and in London. Plus, branches of the respective auction houses have been shuttered across the globe. Added to that grim picture, Christie's has endured the recent defections of Phillipe Ségalot, former contemporary art head, as well as Franck Giraud, former director of 19th- and 20th-century art, who left to form a private dealership.

Then the coming year could be even worse. With Wall Street bonuses dropping sharply some 30 percent -- that's a staggering $4.3 billion decline -- both big time and small time collectors are bound to severely curb their spending habits during the days ahead.

So coupled with the fines, shrinking Wall Street money, the recession and the dot-com bubble burst, Taubman when he's finally ensconced in Club Fed can ponder his role in contributing to the plight of the now two crippled auction houses, oddly enough once jokingly referred to as the "twin towers."

"Greed is not good" -- with luck those will be the watchwords for 2002.


BROOK S. MASON writes on the fine and decorative arts.

 
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