Byline: James Fallon

LONDON — Will the auction houses ever be trusted again?
That’s one of the questions plaguing Christie’s and Sotheby’s as they continue to reel from the U.S. Justice Department’s antitrust investigation. Their skyrocketing success over the last few years has been predicated on the illustrious image of high art and high chic that’s been besmirched by the allegations of collusion over setting commissions.
Executives at the two houses bravely claim Sotheby’s and Christie’s will survive and prosper.
“The two brands are so strong that my gut feeling is they will survive, and in three or four months’ time everyone will have moved on,” an observer said optimistically. “They’ve had great scandals before and yet overcame them.”
After all, Sotheby’s and Christie’s still control more than 80 percent of the auction market. Even in Bernard Arnault’s wildest dreams, his $90 million acquisition of the London auction company Phillips last year was never going to rattle the bigger firms too much. And while the owner of LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton is the likeliest candidate to buy the swooning Sotheby’s, observers point out that neither the British government nor the European Union is likely to let Arnault keep both houses because of their own antitrust fears.
In the short term, the woes at Christie’s and Sotheby’s may provide Arnault with a great opportunity.
“If I were Phillips, I would be mounting a big marketing campaign announcing that I was the only clean auction house,” an industry expert said. “It is the only one to have escaped. The problem is that Arnault does not have the global sales offices or the team of experts needed to mount a credible challenge — at this point.
“Of course, the fear is that if this drags on too long, half the staffs of Sotheby’s and Christie’s will leave and go to Phillips or one of the Internet companies. So the main focus at Sotheby’s and Christie’s now has to be to reassure their staffs that everything will be all right.”
Christie’s advantage — apart from its partial immunity — is that owner Francois Pinault’s $1.2 billion purchase of the house in 1998 came years after the alleged collusion with Sotheby’s began. Christie’s also moved earlier to clean up house, quietly letting go of chief executive Christopher Davidge on Christmas Eve and making it look like he’d resigned (although some observers wonder why Lord Charles Hindlip, Christie’s chairman, also wasn’t asked to leave).
Christie’s executive team is now made up of Hindlip as well as deputy chairman Francois Curiel and chief executive Edward Dolman, both of whom were appointed on Davidge’s departure (with a payoff estimated at several million dollars).
Dolman and Curiel are seen as the keys to getting Christie’s through the current crisis. Both men literally started from the bottom — Dolman, 40, joined the house in 1984 as a porter and climbed the ladder to become head of its operations in North and South America. Curiel, 51, began as an intern in the jewelry department in 1967 and eventually became its head.
His renowned charm will be a major asset in the years ahead, as Christie’s moves to rebuild the confidence of sellers and buyers.
“I once asked someone in the business what he thought of Francois Curiel and his reply was, ‘It’s not fair to compare anyone else to him. He’s on a plateau of his own. He’s unique,”‘ said Lyn Revson, widow of Charles Revson, who sold some of her jewelry at Christie’s four years ago.
That uniqueness stems partially from a professionalism and perfectionism carried to the point of obsession. “It is my obsession to do what I say I am going to do,” Curiel said in his French-accented English, in an interview that took place before the government probe became public (he has declined comment since). “Everyone seems to see that as extraordinary, but I don’t. To me it’s normal. If someone calls me, why shouldn’t I return their call that day? It’s simply being professional.”
Joel Rosenthal, the famous jeweler JAR, praised Curiel’s attitude. “No one is as enthusiastic and as capable of communicating that enthusiasm about a piece of jewelry as he is. He’s a mix of Sigmund Freud, a gemologist and P.T. Barnum, because he’s able to get everyone else excited about the jewelry, too.”
Even his detractors acknowledge Curiel’s strengths. “We have fallen out as friends, but I am not blind to his qualities,” says Geneva-based Marion Lambert, who ceased being friends with Curiel — and many others — after her daughter Philippine’s scandalous suicide in 1997. “He lives for his work, never loses his focus, is a very hands-on person and is deeply religious. But Francois wants no waves and tends to stick to the general opinion — which is what makes him so charming to everyone.”
He can generate jealousy, however. A few years ago, New York society was atwitter that Curiel — who is divorced with two grownup children — had seduced the Parisian socialite Mouna Ayoub in order to woo the sale of her fine jewelry away from Sotheby’s. Ayoub has dismissed the gossip while Curiel wearily shrugs and says the rumors are old-hat.
“Did I ever seduce anyone sexually in order to get business? The answer is a definite ‘no,”‘ he said. “But if you mean did I seduce them by my enthusiasm and drive and not abandoning them until the final check is in their account, then the answer is yes.”
And, in a comment that might prove to be prescient, Curiel added: “I have no worries about my ethics; I can look at myself shaving in the morning.”

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