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It was a scene right out of a made-for-TV drama. Christie’s Inc. general counsel Jo Backer Laird watched from the gallery of a New York federal court as the ex-chairman of Sotheby’s Holdings Inc. was convicted of violating the Sherman Antitrust Act late last year. (A. Alfred Taubman is expected to be sentenced this spring.) The rival auction houses both admitted conspiring to fix commission rates for much of the 1990s, but Christie’s has avoided criminal punishment — thanks to the leniency deal that Laird helped broker with the U.S. Department of Justice. The government’s antitrust attorneys had been investigating the two big auction houses since 1997. But the smoking gun was a trove of documents from the personal files of Christopher Davidge. Just days after stepping down as CEO of London-based Christie’s International plc in 1999, Davidge, for reasons that are unclear, handed over the papers — which included memos about meetings between top executives from both houses and agreements to curtail certain competitive practices — to his lawyer, William “Joe” Linklater of Chicago’s Baker & McKenzie. Linklater sent the package to Christie’s outside antitrust counsel, Clifford Aronson of New York’s Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. It contained a 6-inch-high stack of papers that Aronson quickly discovered were “quite revealing.” He rushed to review the contents with Laird, who recognized that “we had a serious situation” and placed conference calls with senior management of Christie’s International. Aronson says that Christie’s decision to turn over the evidence to the Justice Department was a risky proposition with “no guarantees” of amnesty. In an effort to persuade companies to come forward, the antitrust division says it may be lenient when a business offers “complete cooperation that advances the Division in its investigation.” Says Aronson: “Convincing them that we fit within the program” was no easy feat, “when the investigation had been going on for three years.” Christie’s formal involvement in the trial was limited to complying with government requests. Laird says that she attended some of the court proceedings “only as an observer” — unlike her counterpart at Sotheby’s, Donaldson Pillsbury, who took the stand to vouch for his onetime boss. Laird, GC of Christie’s Americas subsidiary, is no newcomer to this kind of battle. While an associate at New York’s Davis Polk & Wardwell in the 1980s, she gained experience with antitrust law. But internal damage control of this magnitude “was not a situation I had dealt with before,” she says. Laird’s background — and the negotiating skills of Aronson and Christie’s management — paid off when Christie’s was able to skirt criminal fines. New York-based Sotheby’s had to pay $45 million in fines in October 2000. But U.S. civil suits were another story. Both houses agreed to split a $512 million settlement for the class of art collectors and dealers who sought to recover alleged losses stemming from the collusion. The court-approved settlement is still on appeal. Laird, 48, wryly admits that her work for Christie’s has “turned out to be a very different experience” from what she anticipated when she assumed the post in 1997. Back then, she recalls, it “sounded like fun” after 10 years of handling litigation and employment law for New York investment bank Morgan Stanley Group Inc. Still, working at an auction house has its perks: “When I get frazzled, I can take a deep breath, go downstairs, and look at art for 10 minutes.”

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