October 23, 2000 12:00 PM

Turned out in a chic gray business suit and holding her head high, 6-ft.-tall Diana “DeDe” Brooks entered a Manhattan courtroom Oct. 5 looking every inch the corporate power player. A graduate of Miss Porter’s—the same boarding school attended by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis—and Yale University, Brooks had risen to president and chief executive officer of the elite auction house Sotheby’s before resigning her post in February amid growing scandal. In 1996 she had overseen the auction of Onassis’s personal effects; two years later she netted worldwide publicity—and sales of $23.4 million—when she put a collection of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s belongings on the block. But as Brooks stood before a federal judge, it became clear just how far the most powerful woman in the art world had fallen.

Looking grim and speaking in a barely audible voice, Brooks, 50, pleaded guilty to participating in an illegal conspiracy with rival auction house Christie’s, which along with Sotheby’s controls more than 90 percent of the $4 billion auction market for high-end art and antiques. Simply put, the two firms fixed commission rates paid by sellers, making it virtually impossible for people who put items up for sale to comparison shop. “Those charged were engaged in classic cartel behavior,” says Acting Assistant Attorney General A. Douglas Melamed.

Christie’s rocked the art world when it publicly revealed its role in the multimillion-dollar scam last January. And as news of Brooks’s plea reverberated throughout Manhattan society, friends and former associates expressed shock as well as sympathy for the woman who reportedly kept a needlepoint pillow stitched with the words “It’s Not Easy Being Queen” in her office. “I don’t think she’s a criminal at heart,” says one New York City art dealer. “I think the whole thing was naive.” Adds a longtime friend: “I don’t know how to explain what’s happened. I don’t think of DeDe as a greedy person. I think of her as an aggressive person.”

Not surprisingly, those fleeced by the illegal plan, which helped inflate Sotheby’s U.S. commissions to more than $225 million from 1993 to 1999, aren’t as sympathetic. Seeking restitution, many of the conspiracy’s victims filed lawsuits that were later bundled into a class-action case against both auction houses; it was recently settled for $512 million. “Their conduct was egregious,” says Edward Haber, a Boston attorney who filed one of the original lawsuits and calls the price-fixing plan “a breach of trust.”

Brooks, a mother of two (Elinor Carter, 23, who works in the investment business, and Christopher, 18, a Connecticut boarding school student), felt she had little choice but to cooperate with authorities. “She pleaded guilty to try to avoid jail for her children’s sake,” explains Brooks’s mother, Mary Dwyer, 76. Still, Brooks faces a possible, if unlikely, three years in prison and fines that could reach the hundreds of millions, potentially bankrupting her and husband Michael, 55, a venture capitalist. What’s more, her plea for leniency pits her against her former boss and mentor, ex-Sotheby’s chairman A. Alfred Taubman, 75. In court Brooks said it was “at the direction of a superior at Sotheby’s Holdings” that she engaged in the price-fixing plan. She only had one superior, and that was Taubman. “This is a tragic situation,” says a close friend of both. “She and Al used to be bosom friends.”

Taubman—a Detroit-based shopping-mall king who bought Sotheby’s in 1983 and is reportedly worth more than $850 million—flatly denies his onetime protégée’s claims. “Whatever Ms. Brooks chose to do,” he said in a statement, “she did completely on her own and without my knowledge or approval.”

One thing is clear: In her heyday Brooks was the hottest shot in the business. The hardworking former financial analyst won Sotheby’s top spot in 1994, becoming the first woman to head a major auction house. “She is a charismatic, dominating presence,” recalls a former coworker at Sotheby’s. “She energized any room she was in.”

And she relied on an attack-dog approach to get results. “You are the face of your company,” she once told Town & Country magazine, “and you’re expected to deliver.” Brooks steered Sotheby’s out of the early 1990s recession by masterminding a series of blockbuster celebrity sales—including the $34.5 million Onassis auction that she once called “the most extraordinary experience of my career”—often assuming Sotheby’s auctioneer’s gavel and bellowing out bids herself. Says Bruce Wolmer, editor-in-chief of Art & Auction magazine: “She propelled Sotheby’s, and the rest of the auction world following her, into a whole new way of seeing auction houses.”

Despite such success, Sotheby’s share price continued to languish, and some speculate that Brooks may have agreed to the price-fixing gambit as a way of boosting her company’s bottom line. Says Robert Lacey, author of Sotheby’s: Bidding for Class: “Both companies were under enormous pressure to keep up the dividend and share price.”

The man with whom Brooks conspired—her Christie’s counterpart, then-chief executive Christopher M. Davidge—was forced out by his employer last December. Reportedly disgruntled by his $7.5 million severance package, he turned over a stack of documents detailing the conspiracy. In admitting guilt first, Christie’s and Davidge received amnesty from federal prosecution. No such luck for Sotheby’s, which has agreed to pay a S45 million criminal fine, or for Brooks and Taubman.

While awaiting her Jan. 5 sentencing hearing, Brooks has continued to run six miles a day, work on her golf swing and make vacation plans, like a helicopter ski trip with friends this winter. Still looming are financial fears of the kind that must once have seemed remote for a woman who earned as much as $1.3 million a year in salary and bonuses, kept her designer outfits in a 12-by-15-ft. closet and took 29 people to Bermuda to celebrate her 25th wedding anniversary.

This month Brooks and her husband, who own places in Manhattan and on Long Island, traded in their Greenwich, Conn., residence (which was listed at $4 million) for a home not far from her mother in Hobe Sound, Fla., where state laws make it more difficult for creditors to seize homes in the event of bankruptcy. “She’s gotten more humble because of this,” says Brooks’s mother. “She has said to me over and over again, ‘You know, Mom, I don’t think I could have gotten through this without my family and friends.’ ”

They have seen her through before. The third of six children born to Mary Dwyer and her husband, Martin, a lawyer who died in 1987, Brooks had a financially privileged upbringing on Long Island’s North Shore. But when she was 17, her beloved older brother Martin was killed in a motorcycle accident. “I know if she can take her brother’s death,” Dwyer says, “she can take this.” Brooks has also battled Crohn’s disease, a chronic digestive disorder, since she was a teen; it once nearly killed her, but “she would not give in to it,” Dwyer recalls.

While Sotheby’s has continued to attract big-name art items like a Manet painting it expects to sell for $25 million this fall (“It’s plain our clients still have confidence in us,” insists Sotheby’s Matthew Weigman, a senior vice president and head of public relations for North and South America), Brooks is moving into “a simpler life,” her mother says. In fact, she recently donated part of her large collection of Bill Blass and Valentino suits to charity. “She loved Sotheby’s so much,” Dwyer adds. “All this has hurt her terribly.” Art & Auction’s Wolmer has a different take. “What she hurt the most,” he says, “is herself. It’s a blight on what would otherwise have been a great legacy.”

Galina Espinoza

Fannie Weinstein and Lucia Greene in New York City, Linda Trischitta in Florida and Ellen Tumposky in London

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