Lance Charnes's Reviews > The Art of the Steal

The Art of the Steal by Christopher Mason
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it was ok
bookshelves: nonfiction-art-culture, nonfiction-crime-espionage, reviewed
Recommended for: readers who don't require a lot of crime in their true-crime stories

Sotheby's and Christie's are the world's only two significant international auction houses. If you read about a painting or sculpture being auctioned off for the equivalent of the GDP of sub-Saharan Africa, it's almost 100% certain to have happened in one of their sales rooms. They've been rivals for most of their 200-plus-year histories, competing for the custom of the lavish estates and megarich collectors who need to unload (or stock up on) fine or decorative art ranging from Mesopotamian antiquities to the latest buzzy contemporary art.

Then in the last half of the 1990s, their ambitious CEOs embarked on a commission-fixing scheme that was as ill-fated as it was completely unnecessary. The Art of the Steal is the story of this ill-fated, unnecessary and ultimately meaningless escapade.

Auction houses live by their commissions, the fees charged sellers and buyers (usually a percentage of the hammer [sales] price of a lot) for the various services the auction house provides. In the case of Sotheby's and Christie's, these services include expert appraisals, conservation, publicity, auction catalogs that often rival coffee-table books in their size and lavish presentation, and the auctioneers who can milk huge sums of money from the bidders.

What Sotheby's DeDe Brooks and Christie's Christopher Davidge did starting in 1993 was to coordinate the sellers' and buyers' commissions so the two companies wouldn't continue the self-destructive discounting and fee-waiving that had taken such a chunk out of their bottom lines. They also tried, with less success, to cut back on the inflated guarantees (in essence, the auction house promising a seller a minimum amount of money, no matter the eventual hammer price) and no-interest, no-recourse loans (i.e. free money) promised to the biggest sellers to gain their business. Brooks and Davidge were even less successful in reining in their firms' cutthroat competition for the most lucrative customers. This lasted until 1999, when the U.S. Justice Department took an interest in what was going on; however, it had been a semi-open secret among various members of both companies' C-suites for years.

The punchline: Sotheby's and Christie's were perfectly capable of coordinating their commissions without the CEOs colluding about it, as was demonstrated in 1992 and later in 2000. The entire conspiracy was a waste of everybody's time and effort.

Nonetheless, author Mason takes on this tale with the seriousness usually reserved for mass murder or economic collapse, and research exhaustive enough for a Ph.D thesis. He conducted 2400 interviews and read thousands of pages of evidence and transcripts over the course of two and a half years. The text is heavily footnoted.

Unfortunately, his editor wasn't nearly so diligent. Mason put every bit of his research on the page, bogging down the narrative at nearly every turn. We get exhaustive rundowns on the career arcs of all the major players (and there are a lot of them), the highlights of every high-profile auction either company staged during the course of the conspiracy, every major deal the companies pulled off. Brooks and Davidge meet to conspire; Sotheby's or Christie's has a successful or less-than-successful auction; one house or the other lands a whale; then Brooks and Davidge meet again, in a cycle that lasts at least a hundred pages. Once the Feds get involved, we get the detailed blow-by-blow of the pre-trial maneuvering, then the play-by-play of the trial, which essentially rehashes what we learned during the pre-trial phase. What we don't get is much of an explanation of what happens in a major auction house below the executive-suite level. I'm interested in this material both personally and as an author playing in the same sandbox, and it took a serious act of will for me to get through the soggy middle of this book.

If you're into schadenfreude, though, this book is for you. Al Taubman, the chairman of Sotheby's, rides to his minimum-security prison in a chauffeured limo. DeDe Brooks has to endure six months' house arrest in her $5 million Upper East Side co-op apartment. Chris Davidge throws a $1 million wedding while in exile in Mumbai. Both companies still exist today, carrying on much as they did before the conspiracy came together. The people who were allegedly hurt by the commission-rigging weren't laid-off blue-collar workers on the cusp of losing their homes, but among the wealthiest people in the world. The low-level employees sacked by the two companies in order to scrape together money for the fines and damages are dismissed with a single line, almost in passing, so we don't even get to sympathize with them.

The Art of the Steal might have worked better played as a comedy: supposedly smart people doing egregiously dumb things for no especially good reason, getting their comeuppance in rather non-serious ways, and going on to live the rest of their lives (A Midsummer Night's Lawsuit, perhaps). The book's greatest fault is its failure to explain why any of this matters, or why it needs its obsessive detail or dead-serious approach. There's nothing wrong with this story that couldn't be fixed by losing about a hundred pages. Author Mason is clearly an adept researcher; I hope he turns that skill to a subject that really deserves it.
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