Putting the hammer on the Big 2 good for collectors

A packed Christie’s auction room
This article was first published March 5th, 2000, in the Sunday Business Post

The number of column inches that the price-fixing fiasco between Sotheby’s and Christie’s has received recently has been nothing short of startling. But the subsequent resignations, the US Justice Department antitrust investigations and the outcry from clients and shareholders have to a great extent overshadowed the power and influence that these two monoliths of the art world really command.

Amazingly they control 95 per cent of the worldwide art salesroom business and have done so for many years.

A quick glance at the problems that Bill Gates is currently experiencing only goes to show how influential they have been in keeping their monopoly on art sales to themselves for the past two and a half centuries.

Sotheby’s, for instance, bigger of the two by just a whisker, was a company that started as a bookseller in 1744.

Its first sale, the contents of a gentleman’s library, barely realised a couple of hundred pounds, yet last year they recorded a turnover of just under 2 billion dollars.

The company was bought in 1983 by American entrepreneur Alfred Taubman, a shopping centre billionaire who swiftly used his considerable talents to turn a venerable old institution into a powerful stock market performer with over 100 offices around the world.

The board now boasts such influential surnames as Rockefeller, Getty and von Thyssen to name but a few.

When the downturn came in the late 1980s, the market slowed considerably, especially with contemporary art which bottomed out completely. The need for cashflow, as in every business, was pressing.

Drastic measures had to be taken and as everyone now knows, this was the genesis of the cosy cartel and tinkering with commissions which is just the latest in a series of high-profile gaffes.

But Sotheby’s had been involved in controversy before. Take the sale of thf McAlmont estate in Mount Juliet, Co Kilkenny, in 1986. The estate had just been sold to a consortium of businessmen headed by Tim Mahony of Toyota Ireland to be developed as a golf and country club.

The sale of the contents of the house – a unique collection that had been in the McAlmont family for a few generations – was handled by Sotheby’s and was a high-profile affair that attracted attention from private buyers and dealers from across the globe.

A heavily illustrated catalogue was issued and the sale went very well. Except for one hiccup; one of the paintings which had an estimate in the low hundreds sold for £27,000.

To most people that would be a godsend but the art world does not like surprises of this nature.

Sotheby’s thought the painting so insignificant that there wasn’t even an illustration of it in the catalogue.

It was subsequently learned that the painting had been bought by London art dealer David Posnett, who had identified the work as a sketch of Captain Cooke by William Hodges. Hodges was the official artist on Cooke’s voyages to the south seas.

Posnett later sold the painting to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich for stg£650,000.

With the resources available to the big two, one wonders how something on this scale could happen.

One half of one of their big departments, of which the have numerous experts in every conceivable area of collecting, would still be bigger than our biggest Irish auction house, yet things like this rarely if ever happen here.

But the established Irish dealers and auctioneers are not faceless monolithic institutions worrying about share prices.

Sothebys make auction history with Francis Bacon’s Tryptych 1976 which made $86m in 2008

Quiet competition, the personal touch and attention to detail have always worked well in this country.

The real question lies in the relationship between business and art.

As far as the visual arts are concerned, a lot of hungry artists are leading a less hungry existence because of corporate buying policies. But when big business enters the fray with dollops of other people’s money, it is time for the ordinary collector to take stock. Artificial markets tend to bubble and burst.

Meanwhile cracks are beginning to appear. Sotheby’s shares have dropped from a high of $47 last year to around $15 last week.

The best advice would be to let the big boys fight it out for themselves. Competition is always good for business. The collector can be the only winner.

This article was first published March 5th, 2000, in the Sunday Business Post

Auction Houses go online

This article was first published April 2, 2000 in the Sunday Business Post.

The online auction marketplace has changed considerably in 10 years.

Auction Houses go Online

They said it couldn’t last. For months the analysts have been painting the walls with a dark thick impasto. The message was there for all to see – internet stocks were simply selling way above their value.

As long as share prices kept on rising no one was willing to ask the important questions – where are the profits, where is the revenue.

But in spite of recent setbacks, I wouldn’t necessarily write the internet out of the equation just yet.

The “even-ning out”, as it was euphemistically called last week, of the new versus the old economy shares has justifiably put the whole issue of the function, usefulness and philosophy of the internet into focus.

As far as the antiques trade is concerned it is either a godsend or a major thorn in the side, depending on your perspective and level of technology awareness.

The growth of online auctions on the web has the potential to change the entire nature of the business and for both buyer and seller it should be looked at with equal parts enthusiasm, apprehension and prudence.

There are still a lot of issues that have to be addressed, most notably security, payment methods and insurance. But all these issues are currently being sorted out and should be seen not as obstacles to entry, but rather as opportunities to develop greater confidence for both vendor and buyer in the potential of trading over the net.

You could say that it was really Amazon that started the whole e-commerce ball rolling.

It was Amazon, at any rate that first caught the public imagination. It started out as a small retailer of books over the internet, and then metamorphosed into a super retailer of anything to anyone, anywhere.

Then came the “clicks and mortar” revolution as major American companies decided that they should be having a slice of this rather large cake. One after another they set up e-tailing departments and began plying their wares over the internet.

With expectations for Christmas sales over the internet now set to exceed conventional channels within a couple of years the rest of the word has woken up.
Enter the online auction house.

As usual the US has set the example and the rest of the world has not been too slow to catch up this time.

The first site to receive any significant attention was Ebay (www.ebay.com) and it is still very much the benchmark against which all others have set their standards.
Ebay likes to refer to itself as an online trading community, which is a reversion to older trading methods where the middleman was cut out of the trading flow and individuals sold directly to each other.

This philosophy of community is further enhanced by Ebay’s bulletin boards where like-minded individuals can discuss mutual areas of interest.

Sellers are encouraged to set up their own home page with facilities on the site providing for lists and pictures of items, biographies of the sellers and recommendations from previous purchasers.

Their ultimate aim is to bring online trading into the realm of lifestyle choice but in reality the overall thrust of the site lends itself more towards the car boot sale analogy than the auction house one.

But having said that Ebay’s success has been phenomenal and its imitators large in number.

An Irish version Ebid (www.ebid.ie) was launched in January and, as should be expected, it has a significantly Irish flavour.

But it has a long way to go to being anywhere near as successful as Ebay. The Ebay site literally had millions of items for sale when I looked at it last week as opposed to the couple of hundred on the Ebid site. But it is early days yet.

As far as costs go commissions on sales are calculated on a sliding scale of between 0.5 per cent to 5 per cent by Ebid; these are based on the value of the item being sold.

With all this activity in online auction sales it obviously wasn’t long before the traditional auctions houses began to look on the online revolution as a threat. The situation had to be remedied, and quickly.

Cue Sotheby’s and its strategic link up with Amazon at the beginning of last year. In the slow moving conservative world of antiques and fine art a move of this nature by the world’s biggest auction house had to have significant reverberations.

Where Sotheby’s goes the rest follow, it seems. In one fell swoop the internet, which was just a novelty to the antiques community for years was immediately at the top of every boardroom agenda.

Internet strategies had to be developed, domain names had to be registered, sites had to be built. The results of the frenetic scramble to get connected have been nothing short of amazing.

It is too early yet to predict what the final shape of the online market will be like in relation to the antiques trade, because the internet revolution is only really starting in this arena now, and with the underlying uncertainty that has characterised the other stampedes to market, it is really anbody’s guess.

To put things in perspective – two weeks ago I received with my weekly copy of the bible of the English trade, The Antiques Trade Gazette (ATG), a copy of their second ATG Internet Handbook.

The first one was published last summer and contained just under 600 entries on antiques and fine arts related sites, web addresses etc. This one runs to about 100 pages and contains more than 1,000 entries.

The interesting point noted by the publishers is not the increase in the number of sites but the number of sites that have fallen by the wayside in the space of a few months.

There is no doubt about it, these are exciting times for the antiques trade. It is fair to say that a new era has commenced and already there are talks of mergers, acquisitions and strategic agreements between all sorts of erstwhile competitive parties.

The talk at the moment is all about gateway sites where large numbers of smaller dealers and auctioneers get together and attract customers under one large banner.

But the oft used analogy of car manufacturers at the beginning of the century in the US is still the most apt – of the 40 or so manufacturers that were active during that period only three exist today.

The trick is in picking the final three – I’m off to polish my crystal ball.

The Irish Antiques trade, which usually shows a time lapse of about six months in adopting new practices, has not been found napping this time. The majority have now set up their own websites, which are listed below.

The quality varies. Most are still just at the company brochure stage, some carry catalogues, but none offer online trading, and it is debatable if there is a need for it here.

The only criticism I have of the majority of these sites is the fact that some have not been updated for months.

They will be reviewed in detail in future columns.
James Adam, St Stephens Green: www.james-adam.com
de Veres Auctions, Kildare Street: www.deveresart.com
Hamilton Osborne King, Blackrock: www.hok.ie/fine.art/
Mealys, Castlecomer: www.mealys.com
Mullens, Bray: www.mullenslaurelpark.com
O’Reilly’s, Lord Edward Street: www.telematix.ie/oreillys/
Whytes, Marlborough Street: www.whytes.ie

This article was first published April 2, 2000 in the Sunday Business Post.


Auction houses to pay for collusion

This article was first published in the Sunday Business Post, October 1st 2000

News was emerging last week of a possible denouement to the long running price fixing dispute between the two leviathans of the fine art auctioneering  world, Sotheby’s and Christie’s

It now appears that both firms will be paying out over $500 million in compensation to clients who allege that collusion over commission rates cost them money.

This story, which has captivated art market watchers since it first broke in January this year, contains all the elements of a Jeffrey Archer novel. It is a story of international intrigue, billionaire businessmen,  secret memos, class action lawsuits, gentleman’s agreements, New York socialites, Department of Justice investigations and of course, price fixing.

The politician turned novelist Archer has experienced a few problems himself this year but they cannot possibly compare to the annus horribilis experienced  the world’s two leading auction houses.

The key players in the saga, are Alfred Taubman and Francois Pinault. Taubman, a billionaire Detroit shopping centre magnate was the chairman of Sotheby’s until the beginning of this year.

He made his fortune by transforming outdated suburban shopping malls into playgrounds for the rich with designer shops and trendy cafes in the late 1960’s and 1970’s.

Taubman bought Sotheby’s in1993 for $130 million and soon afterwords took the company public in London and New York.

The shares subsequently skyrocketed on the back of massive earnings from the overheated New York art market of the 1980’s and although he is no longer chairman of the company, he still effectively retains control.

Francois Pinault, meanwhile, is the hardnosed French billionaire and owner of Gucci, Samsonite and Chateau Latour, the top Bordeaux vineyard.

He is also owner of the Vail ski resort in Colorado and through a labyrinthine network of other companies, is also involved in newspapers, books, software, music and clothing chains.

He bought Christie’s outright in 1998 for $1.2 billion just after it had overtaken Sotheby’s in annual earnings. It had been a public company since 1973, but Pinault took the company private. According to Forbes Magazine he is currently worth about of $8 billion

The origins of the current dispute go back to 1997, when the US Justice Department began an antitrust investigation of dealers and auction houses in relation to price fixing and anticompetitive behaviour.

The investigation quickly zeroed in on the big two, who between them control nearly 95 per cent of global art auction sales.

US government officials raided Christie’s and Sotheby’s in New York and seized documents relating to commission fixing.

As the investigations were continuing, Pinault, having bought Christie’s, moved a large team of accountants who checked the books with a fine tooth comb. Then on Christmas Eve 1999, Pinault fired Christie’s chief executive officer Christopher Davidge

The firm issued a press release stating that it had become aware of “information relevant to the antitrust investigation and this information had been handed to the Justice Department in return for immunity from criminal prosecution.

This was a master stroke by Pinault because under US antitrust law, only the first party in a cartel can qualify for immunity. Soon afterwards Christie’s changed its pricing structure, a clear signal that the so called gentleman’s agreement between the two firms had ended. After that the revelations came fast and furious.

There was talk of a memo dating back to the mid1990s written by Sir Anthony Tennant, then chairman of Christie’s, to his chief executive Christopher Davidge which detailed a discussion between himself and Taubman in relation to commission payments

This vital piece of evidence is believed to have prompted Pinault’s lawyers to make a deal with the Justice Department in return for immunity from prosecution.

Pinault’s action also made Sotheby’s more vulnerable to hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of compensation claims from art dealers and collectors. Around this time a number of both companies’ clients were beginning to assemble a class action suit against them.

The same was true of Sotheby’s shareholders, who claimed that the alleged collusion had artificially, inflated the firm’s shares on the New York Stock Exchange.

Shares in Sotheby’s which were selling for $42 in spring 1999, were selling at around $16 in February of this year.

These claims could have been disastrous as under US law, buyers who are overcharged can claim punitive triple damage.

The European Competition Commission. and similar bodies in Britain, Switzerland and Australia. quickly followed suit with their own investigations, although the Australians have since closed theirs without taking any action.

But while the US Justice Department has  declared that Christle’s has immunity, it is not known if the European Competition Commission and the authorities in other jurisdictions will be so lenient.

In Christie’s favour is the fact that most of the commission fixing allegations are related to the time before Pinault’s takeover in 1998. His subsequent cooperation with investigators is also likely to stand him in good stead.

Although davidge was the only casualty in Christie’s, the axe fell very hard on Sotheby’s. In February Alfred Taubman and the public face of Sotheby’s in the US Diana Brooks, a millionaire New York socialite who was both president and chief executive, both resigned.

The possible $512niillion payout by the big two to clients who claim they lost money because of the alleged collusion over commission rates represents the biggest legal settlement in art market history.

The firms are now set to pay more than $256 million each to collectors and dealers who threatened to take them to court over the scandal. About 50 clients who had bought and sold art and antiques at the salerooms of the big two had lodged a joint civil claim for damages in New York which was due to be held in the spring. There were even rumblings in late February that the class-action suit might extend to Europe but it is not yet known if any Irish or British clients joined the action or can benefit from the payout.

Sothcby’s has also agreed to pay more than $30 million to some of its shareholders in the shareholder class action lawsuit. In addition they will also receive shares worth $40 million. The biggest loser in this saga appears to be Alfred Taubman.

An announcement last week from Sotheby’s stated that. while the firm’s net cash outlay as a result of these settlements will be $50 million, Taubman will be paying Sotheby’s over $200 million towards the settlement.

However, he remains philosophical about the debacle. Commenting on settlements he said he endorsed and is contributing to these settlements to facilitate the resolution of all matters and to minimise the impact on Sotheby’s, “a company I care about deeply”.

A statement released by Sotheby’s said the firm was “optimistic that a mutually acceptable resolution will be reached in the near future” with the Justice Department over the criminal allegations.

If the EU Commission continues with its case, the stiffest penalty it could impose on both auction houses is a fine of a maximum of 10 per cent of total revenues This is unlikely to happen but if it did the firms would still be able to carry the burden financially

Both firms have weathered many scandals throughout their two and a half centuries of existence and even though this is the most expensive so far in monetary terms, only time will tell how much damage has been done to their reputations.

This article was first published in the Sunday Business Post, October 1st 2000