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  On the other end of Ségalot's phone, says a reliable source, was François Pinault, the French venture capitalist who orchestrated the acquisition of Christie's last June and took the company private. Is it a conflict for Pinault to buy at his company's sales? No. Auction house employees are barred from bidding since they may have access to inside information (reserves) not available to the public. They may, however, leave order bids. The principals of an auction house (in Christie's case, Pinault and partners he has, while at Sotheby's that would include not only controlling shareholder A. Alfred Taubman but financier and Sotheby's board member Henry Kravis) may bid on property in any way they chose.

Does the practice make people queasy? Yes. Look at the effect Pinault had on the sale's total, not to mention ineffables like the mood and buoyancy of the sale. As the underbidder on the Koons, he added at least $70,000 to the price that d'Offay paid. With the Gober, he and d'Offay's N.Y. representative, Cohan, were in a two-person fight from $540,000 to the final hammer price of $720,000, when Pinault got it. And Pinault picked up Charles Ray's Ink Drawing for $376,500 (above the high estimate of $200,000).

It's one thing for Christie's to spend a couple of million dollars to promote and hype an auction. It's another for its controlling shareholder to appear to be supporting, if not creating, new price levels for artists that Christie's is showcasing. No question, Pinault is and has been for years a dedicated collector, and it's no surprise that he's buying art.

But, if there were no problem with it, why did Pinault change bidding representatives, going from Ségalot to Dominique Levy, to buy Agnes Martin's Kali for $217,000? She used bidder number 1726, which until then had been Ségalot's. The kind interpretation is that Ségalot's phone went wacky. The skeptical version is that Pinault was trying to hide his participation in the auction.

-- Andrew Decker