Jury begins its deliberations in Sotheby's price-fixing trial

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The Independent US

A jury was sent out to start deliberating the biggest alleged scandal of the auction industry – deciding whether the former Sotheby's chairman hatched a multi-million dollar price-fixing scheme with a rival from Christie's.

Prosecutors have claimed that Alfred Taubman schemed with former Christie's chairman, Anthony Tennant, to steal as much as $400m (£280m) in commissions from sellers over a six-year period between 1993 and 1999. His defence has argued that he was set up by a power-hungry employee with questionable credibility.

During the often sensational trial, the court heard that the alleged scheme started after a meeting between the two men in London in 1993 at which they both agreed they were "killing each other on the bottom line and that it was time to do something about it".

Sotheby's profits started shrinking in the late 1980s, from $410m in 1989 to $202m in 1992. The prosecution's main witness was Diana Brooks, a former Sotheby's chief executive who pleaded guilty to price-fixing charges last year. She agreed to testify against Mr Taubman in hopes of avoiding a three-year prison sentence.

Ms Brooks said in her testimony that the two bosses ordered her and her Christie's counterpart to end a costly rivalry by eliminating discounts and charging identical, non-negotiable commissions.

Ms Brooks said Mr Taubman also warned her to keep quiet about it.

The secret deal denied sellers the opportunity to negotiate a lower commission from one auction house by threatening to take business to the other. Since some auction items are worth millions of dollars, negotiating even a slightly lower commission could translate into considerable savings for the seller.

The two auction houses control 90 per cent of the world's art auctions.