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Federal District Court
at 40 Centre Street

A. Alfred Taubman, from a Sotheby's corporate report.

Foley Square, with Lorenzo Pace's black granite Triumph of the Human Spirit.
Taubman on Trial
by Lindsay Pollock

The white sheet of paper posted on the door of room 110 in Manhattan Federal District Court bore a blunt message, "USA v. A Alfred Taubman." The government prosecution of Taubman, Sotheby's former chairman and largest shareholder, was about to begin.

Back in May, the 76-year-old Taubman and Christie's former chairman Anthony J. Tennant were indicted by a federal grand jury for conspiring to fix sellers' commissions in violation of anti-trust laws. Tennant, a British citizen, opted not to face the court and has maintained his innocence from British soil. He was recently spotted at his birthday bash at Boodles, a trendy London night-spot. But while Tennant boogies at Boodles, Taubman faces a far less festive outlook: up to three years in prison and hefty fines, on top of the $186 million he has already agreed to pay to defray Sotheby's penalties. The trial, which began yesterday, Nov. 8, 2001, is expected to last for four or five weeks.

A small group of photographers waited outside the entrance to the courthouse at 40 Center Street, an impressive neo-classical building with Corinthian columns, hoping for a Taubman photo-op. The large sidewalk in front of the court was off limits, the perimeter delineated in yellow police tape. Bags were searched and photo identifications required to gain access to the front door, guarded by a pair of brawny U.S. Marshals, outfitted with dangling pouches of ammunition and accessorized with the latest in shotgun fashion.

Once inside, more marshals x-rayed bags, airport-style. Around the corner and down a long marble hallway, Andrea Shepard was first in line for entrance to the courtroom. A courtroom artist, Shepard slurped a large Diet Coke and leaned on the handle of a luggage cart packed with pastels and paper. Shepard works with her mother Shirley, and had recently completed a sketching gig two floors above during the Embassy bombing trial. She flashed a leftover blue laminate pass marked with the name of the absent defendant, Osama bin Laden. She pulled brightly colored pastel sketches from her black rolling cart with images of stern Arab men in turbans and long dark beards.

Shirley arrived. A zoftig woman in her late 60s, she munched on a Klondike Krunch bar and tossed her long blond hair back behind a shoulder. The Shepards had worked during Taubman's grand jury trial in May. She had no fears for Big Al. "He'll do well in jail. He'll lose weight, live longer," she said pointing her fingers, already coated in black pastel chalk, "Case in point -- Abe Hirshfeld!"

The small crowd waiting to enter the courtroom included one representative from Sotheby's, the friendly but somewhat nervous Jonathan Olsoff, senior vice president and North American general counsel, who later reported back to the auction firm's York Avenue headquarters by cellphone during the lunch break.

Several members of the art media elite lingered by the entrance, including the New York Times' Ralph Blumenthal, in a dapper taupe suit and woven leather Italian slippers, and Art & Auction's Judd Tully, whose spiky white hair gives him an rock star's allure.

The group also included Christopher Mason, who freelances for the Times and New York magazine. He is hard at work on When the Gavel Falls, a book about the trial that he is writing for Putnam publishers. Since December 2000, he has conducted over 400 interviews and hopes to have the book printed by the spring of 2002. Mason was duded up in a snappy purple Op-Art inspired bow tie with matching purple socks. "I have a huge Gene Meyer bow tie collection," he said.

Just before 10:30 a.m., the press was admitted to the courtroom and filed into the first two rows. A clerk belted out "Hear ye, hear ye," and the room stood on courtly ceremony while Judge Daniels made his entrance. Daniels, who is African-American, sat at a large podium at the front of the room, directly beneath a large medallion with an engraving of the American eagle. The defense and prosecution faced the judge. Taubman's legal team from Davis Polk & Wardwell was headed up by Robert Fiske and Scott Muller.

Taubman himself was seated between his counsel, tanned and calm, in a gray suit and cerulean blue tie. He wore a plastic headset, connected to the court's sound system, to overcome the lousy acoustics in the courtroom. He was very passive; on occasion he would close his eyes, as if napping.

Twelve observers were seated in the back of the courtroom. Wife Judy Taubman and stepdaughter Tiffany Dubin, two high-profile figures at Sotheby's during the 1990s, did not attend. Gayle Kalisman, Taubman's daughter, arrived after lunch. She wore a pained expression and no make-up. Taubman's personal flak, Chris Tennyson, had flown in from Detroit and observed from the back row, dressed in a dapper pin-striped suit.

By 11:15 a.m., 75 potential jurors had been called to the courtroom. The clerk pulled 24 names from a wooden box. They were seated in the jury box for questioning. "Have any of you heard of Alfred Taubman." Only 10 hands were raised. "Have any of you heard of Sotheby's or Christie's?" All 24 hands shot up. "Anthony Tennant?" Three hands. Judge Daniels read a list of prospective witnesses, including auction-house heavies Diana "Dede" Brooks, Christopher Davidge, Michael Ainslie, Max Fischer, Mitchell Zuckerman, William Ruprecht and Lord Gowry.

After two hours of questioning, 18 of the jurors were dismissed. The rejects included some of the most educated and affluent -- including an architect, an interior designer, a music therapist and two lawyers. Among the first six jurors are a creative director from a small marketing agency, a home health-care aide, a Westchester deli owner and a former corrections officer who now works for the transit system.

Jury selection will continue on Friday until 12 jurors and three or four alternates have been selected.

Outside the courthouse, an enormous black granite sculpture from 1993 by Lorenzo Pace, titled Triumph of the Human Spirit, anchors Foley Square. Perhaps this soaring bird-like form will fortify Taubman in the weeks to come.

LINDSAY POLLOCK writes on art from New York.