Inside the Art Market: Double Agents

Rummaging through the dim, cavernous room of art titles at a used bookseller in New England on a recent weekend I came across something that leaped out at me, if only for the author’s name on the spine. I pulled the book out and peered at its title on the drab blue dustjacket. Artistic Theory in Italy, 1450-1600, it read: something to quicken the heart of an art history doctoral candidate perhaps but surely no one else. But I bought the book anyway. At home taking a closer look I noticed on the flyleaf, penciled-in by the knowing bookseller just below the price and above a “Blackwell’s Oxford” stamp, this cheeky notation:


Yes of course, I thought! For the author of the book was Anthony Blunt, famed art scholar and secret agent, the “fifth man” in the celebrated English spy ring that included Kim Philby, the smooth double agent who fled to the Soviet Union in 1963 just before capture. Others fled as well. Blunt, on the other hand, although long suspected of treachery remained hidden in plain sight for decades. Indeed, he’d been named Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures and given a knighthood; been showered with accolades as director of the Courtauld Institute; praised as a brilliant Renaissance art scholar, lecturer and author. He was an eminence grise of academia toddling along toward a dull and respectable retirement until Margaret Thatcher unmasked him in 1979. Stripped of his knighthood but curiously granted amnesty, Blunt was soon driven underground and died in disgrace. His name today is but dimly remembered.

Anyone who has read the symphonic Smiley’s People trilogy can quickly visualize the grim and smoky meeting rooms, safe houses and back-alleys of 1960s London and Berlin that John Le Carré so vividly evokes in these novels. His plot entanglements and soaring characterizations conjure up a Wagnerian opera of Cold War spy craft. Having recently watched yet again the BBC dramatization Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy starring Alex Guinness, I was reminded anew of how sinister and deliciously bleak Le Carré’s spy stories are, how mesmerizing and poetic. Was there ever a more riveting subject for a thriller—indeed for any work of fiction—than the Cold War?

But really, an art scholar like Anthony Blunt in this dark, menacing realm? The art world after all is so tame and mannered, so lacquered and velvet-lined. Where are its dark alley-ways, its cold-blooded assassins, its Kim Philbys?

But hold on. Thinking it over I quickly recalled a recent act of treachery and spy craft in the art world that had truly seized everyone’s attention. A small band of finely-tailored operatives from Sotheby’s and Christie’s, working in collusion starting around 1995, had wreaked havoc for themselves and for the art market. Careers had been ruined and names forever blackened. And these double agents in pinstripes and silk were just as cunning and secretive as any character out a novel by John Le Carré.

I recall vividly the weekend that all hell broke loose. It was in February 2000, President’s Day weekend, and I was taking my daughter Gillian and son Alex into the city for a day of diversions. We were going ice-skating at Rockefeller Center, having dinner at Ben Benson’s Steak House and then zipping over to the Winter Garden on Broadway to see Cats. But we also planned to visit my office at Sotheby’s.

The kids loved the building, a bright and glistening new ten-story glass and steel tower that was exactly what the owner, A. Alfred Taubman, a builder of malls, had always envisaged for Sotheby’s: to make it more like a retail department store. The floors were thus vast and fluorescent, as though no secrets could abide here, only cheery commerce. What an improvement over the old building, a squat and grim rabbit-warren of offices and storage rooms all cluttered and dusty, with dark, serpentine passageways, the whole effect colorful but confusing. How very much it reminded one of MI5’s fictional offices, “the Circus,” in Le Carré’s novels! 

But an eerie atmosphere nonetheless pervaded the new building that President’s Day weekend, and I quickly learned why. Running into a colleague who sat on the Sotheby’s board, and who should have been at his weekend house up near Bear Mountain, I was informed: “Dede’s been forced out. She may go to prison for what she’s done.”

Hence began for myself and my equally shocked colleagues what came to be known as the Auction House Collusion Scandal. The long and bitter cold war between Sotheby’s and Christie’s, something that had instilled thrilling esprit de corps on both sides of the trenches for decades, had proved suddenly to be a myth, an elaborate concoction, a fake war.

As Bill Ruprecht assumed command at Sotheby’s in New York amidst the chaos, meetings were hastily called to explain to the staff what had just happened. In brief, the U.S. Department of Justice had been investigating allegations of price-fixing at the major auction houses; Christie’s legal team, in their due diligence, had discovered evidence of collusion and gone running to the Feds seeking amnesty; and Sotheby’s was left out in the cold, pleading guilty as charged. The sordid details were soon being aired by the media worldwide.

As I think of it now, the scandal itself might best be glimpsed as a short movie: a spy thriller involving two vividly-drawn characters in many acts of betrayal.

These were Dede Brooks, the all-powerful head of Sotheby’s, based in New York; and her opposite number at Christie’s in London, Christopher Davidge. If spies are mainly invisible, shadowy in their movements and of drab and rumpled appearance, Brooks and Davidge were the opposite. Brooks was tall and imperious, colorful and charming, above all brainy and self-confident, a shining product of Miss Porter’s School and Yale by way of Smith College. Davidge, on the other hand, while perhaps equally poised, was an object of some mockery at Christie’s, nicknamed “the golden hamster” in recognition of his grooming skills. He had risen smartly through the ranks at Christie’s, but rather sideways via their printing company and not a specialist department, and was thus viewed with some derision as to schooling, pedigree and polish. Still, he and Brooks were the public faces of two of the most elite art market institutions in the world and traveled about in grand style, emissaries of elegance, taste, tradition, integrity.

Their charmed existence in the art market was marred only by one thing: competition. Of course, they really had none: it was only Sotheby’s and Christie’s at the summit of the auction market, a deeply-entrenched duopoly, each house centuries old and impregnable. But the two houses competed ferociously against one another for the choicest estates and collections coming up for sale; and this was a constant and costly warfare. In order to win, say, the Estate of Andy Warhol (Sotheby’s) or the Estate of Paul Mellon (Christie’s) they had to offer almost ruinous financial terms, thus resulting in many pyrrhic victories. To make matters worse, the art market had all but collapsed in 1990 after many years of spectacular success. A dark period of recession had ensued, one nearly crippling both auction houses.

Thus by 1995 something had to be done to put matters on more of an equal keel, and fast. At the behest of their bosses—Alfred Taubman at Sotheby’s and Sir Anthony Tennant at Christie’s—Brooks and Davidge thus began to meet in secret and collude.

Let us visualize the spies in action.

In one of the more sensational scenes from this misadventure, on one occation Davidge took the Concorde from London to New York, arriving at 9:25 am, where he was met by Brooks in her Lexus Sedan. After a two-hour backseat meeting in the airport parking lot, Davidge was soon back on the Concorde for a noon flight to London. One can only imagine the furious exchange of client lists and profiles that took place between the two during this and other furtive meetings; of company secrets and strategies, hitherto so jealously guarded and now simply handed over to the enemy.

In all those years working at Sotheby’s in the 1990s, amidst this cold war atmosphere of constant battles with Christie’s over consignments, I for one would never have thought of Dede Brooks as a mole. If anything she was superwoman, a charismatic leader of enormous persuasion, ambitious, yes, but also tireless in her pursuit of deals favorable to Sotheby’s; and admirably the sole woman at the top of an art market overwhelmingly dominated for centuries by men.

I recall many occasions when Brooks would joyously summon the troops to the saleroom at Sotheby’s in New York to announce a stunning victory over Christie’s for a coveted piece of business. In her office one almost expected to see a giant World War II-era map depicting the deployment of Sotheby’s troops in Europe, Asia and the Americas doing battle in far flung campaigns against Christie’s.

It is all the more ironic to think that this shabby price-fixing conspiracy was hatched not long after Sotheby’s celebrated its glorious 250th anniversary in 1994. It was if the noble history and traditions of the firm, stretching back to the 18th century and revered for so long by generations of Sotheby’s employees, had now run their course.

Unlike in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy the auction house collusion drama played out not in London but in New York City, in a courtroom. In exchange for her testimony against Taubman, thus sending him to prison, Dede Brooks was given a lighter sentence, serving house arrest at her Upper East Side apartment while forfeiting money and forced to do a thousand hours of community service. Thus she could be spotted here and there during her period of punishment wearing her electronic ankle bracelet as she moved about town. Davidge, on the other hand, walked free with a hefty payout from Christie’s along with a pension. Tennant remained in Britain throughout, under indictment in the United States and thus unable to travel there without risking arrest.

The story soon died. Apart from a few books on the subject no major film was made, despite rumors that Sigourney Weaver might be playing Dede Brooks in one.

I am trying to think of what good came from this bleak episode in the long history of the art market, but I can’t think of a single thing. The art market operates on trust after all, and the auction houses have always prided themselves on one thing: transparency. That quality was shattered during the collusion scandal, and it is hard to argue that confidence in the auction houses has ever really returned. Indeed, one might ask: what could Sotheby’s and Christie’s possibly have done to regain the public’s trust?

Well, what they have done is something very clever. They have risen to the heights of showmanship, becoming a three-ring circus of pomp and spectacle.

Just look at the many dazzling entertainments they now offer throughout the auction season. There are fabulous digital platforms and dazzling website presentations; high-wire, brilliantly-themed auctions all over the world, with items often selling for tens of millions; grand outdoor sculpture exhibitions of the very latest Contemporary works at stately English homes; glittering new hires from the world of museums, show biz, even sports; constant video streams taking one behind the scenes of exotic collections; celebrities galore; daring cross-over alliances with corporate sponsors; and above all constant movement, change, reorganization, repackaging—all to make the auction house product seem ever more enticing.

Sir Anthony Blunt would not have survived in this hopped-up realm. But I suspect that Dede Brooks, disgraced and forgotten now, would have flourished. She’d be spurring on the troops and savoring every moment of combat with Christie’s as the auction house trench wars, so very old now, carry on and on.

—Ronald Varney

(Image: Anthony Blunt. Photograph by Snowdon / Trunk Archive.)