Christie's chief lies low after price-fixing trial

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The Independent Online

He wasn't at his club in St James's, London, nor was he at his luxury flat overlooking Kensington Gardens. No, Sir Anthony Tennant, the former chairman of Christie's auctioneers, was probably at his mansion in Hampshire. But because he was keeping his head down, one could not be sure.

Across the Atlantic, the story was very different for Alfred Taubman, Sir Anthony's opposite number at Sotheby's. After a sensational trial in New York, Taubman was awaiting sentencing, having been found guilty of fixing commission rates ... with Sir Anthony.

The contrasting fates of the two men, who for decades commanded the auction world, was not lost on legal experts as the reason for their differing circumstances became clear. Put simply, in America anti-competitive deals between companies aimed at keeping prices artificially high are criminal. In Britain, they are not. So although Sir Anthony was charged alongside Taubman, he could not be extradited to the United States because what he did was not a criminal offence here.

Not until next March will the offence of "running a cartel" be put before MPs as part of a new Enterprise Act. But it will not be retrospective, so there is little to worry Sir Anthony. Taubman, however, is expected to receive a prison term when sentenced on 2 April.

According to prosecutors, Christie's and Sotheby's began to collude illegally in 1995. The authorities, noticing the way in which the two auction houses operated a remarkably similar fee structure, began to investigate. Progress was slow until January 2000 when, in return for an amnesty from prosecution, Christie's handed over documents detailing the pact with Sotheby's and agreed to secure the co-operation of its own former chief executive Christopher Davidge.

Mr Davidge, who had left the company but knew about the deal, was persuaded to give evidence against Taubman. He was owed a £5m golden handshake by Christie's, which might have been under threat had he not helped. His fate, too, will have infuriated Taubman, whose failed defence was that Mr Davidge's opposite number, his own chief executive Diana "Dede" Brooks, fixed the deal. Yesterday, Mr Davidge, 55, was also free from the threat of jail. Like Sir Anthony, Mr Davidge has been refusing to comment.

Sir Anthony, 71, seldom ventures out, say locals in Longparish, the Hampshire village closest to his estate. He has been living quietly on his pension, reportedly £500,000 a year, from previous employment at Guinness. The old Etonian and former guardsman has access to ornamental gardens, a swimming pool, tennis courts and two paddocks. His butler and several estate workers keep him from prying eyes.

Taubman, 76, a self-made multimillionaire property magnate, is also used to the finer things in life. Unlike Sir Anthony, however, he may soon have to swap them for a prison cell.

A spokesman for Sir Anthony's solicitors, CMS Cameron McKenna, said: "We are not allowed to say anything at all about the case."

The Department of Trade and Industry said the Enterprise Bill was still in draft form but confirmed it did contain proposals to make running a cartel a criminal offence. Even though Sir Anthony may be off the hook, there is still time for Christie's to come under scrutiny through fair trading and competition legislation. If the Serious Fraud Office or the Department of Trade and Industry finds evidence of wrongdoing, a company can face unlimited fines. Yesterday, though, neither of those bodies would comment.