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Sir Anthony Tennant, chairman of Christie’s from 1993-1996 and Alfred Taubman, the major shareholder and chairman of Sotheby’s from 1983-2000, are alleged to have been involved in the collusion to fix sellers’, but not buyers’, commissions over a six year period from 1993-1999. “The case will show that these individuals mastered the art of price fixing,” said James Griffin, deputy attorney of the US Justice department’s anti-trust division.

The two men, septuagenarians both, face three years in prison and a fine of $350,000 (extending to twice the gain from their enterprise or twice the loss incurred by their victims) if they are found guilty. Both men have denied all wrongdoing, Alfred Taubman saying: “I am surprised and deeply disappointed by the charges made against me…As confirmed by the lie detector test I have taken, the truth is on my side.”

A statement issued on Tennant’s behalf declared: “Sir Anthony wishes to make it clear he is completely innocent of any involvement in price fixing. The investigations appear to relate in part to periods when Sir Anthony had no involvement with Christie’s.”

The indictments by a federal grand jury in New York were not widely expected. Prosecutors in the case reportedly had no first hand evidence to charge Taubman with price-fixing other than the testimony from Sotheby’s former chief executive Diana Brooks, who has already pleaded guilty to price-fixing charges and is awaiting sentencing on May 23, although this may now be deferred until the new case is heard. Moreover, extradition of Sir Anthony Tennant to face trial in America is believed to be impossible because at the time of the offences Britain had no equivalent anti-trust laws.

The Eton and Cambridge educated knight has made it clear that he would not travel of his own volition to America to face trial. “As a UK subject, Sir Anthony is not subject to the jurisdiction of the US courts and accordingly will not be taking part in any of the pending proceedings,” said a statement issued through his lawyers. “His responsibilities (at Christie’s) were to chair the board and perform high-level ambassadorial and client relationship duties on the company’s behalf.”

However, the Justice Department accused Taubman and Tennant of “participating in meetings and conversations in the US and elsewhere to discuss sellers’ commission rates” and “exchanging customer information for... monitoring and enforcing adherence to non-negotiable sellers’ commission schedules”, among other charges. The timing of the criminal indictment by a grand jury in Manhattan comes at a delicate time for the auction world – barely a fortnight after the final settlement of the $537m pay-out deal by Sotheby’s and Christie’s to 130,000 buyers and sellers in a civil lawsuit alleging price fixing, and days before the richest collectors in the world converge on New York for the Spring series of sales of Impressionist and Modern paintings.

Michael Sovern, chairman of Sotheby’s, said: “We cannot but feel for Alfred Taubman and his family at this difficult time. As far as Sotheby’s itself is concerned, the civil anti-trust claims and criminal charges against the company have been settled or dismissed.”
Christie’s declined to comment.