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The corridors of power...

During the recent furore about public schools allegedly conspiring to fix fees, I enjoyed a convivial lunch with Edward Dolman, chief executive of Christie's, the fine art auctioneer.

It was not that long ago that Christie’s was embroiled in its own price-fixing scandal with arch-competitor Sotheby’s. Dolman was brought in three years ago to succeed Christopher Davidge, whose career was cut short by the price-fixing affair even though Christie’s ‘cut a deal’ with US anti-trust authorities.

Business has been tough for the auction houses, but things appear to be improving. As a private company – owned by media-shy Francois Pinault – Christie’s does not disclose its earnings, but the consensus is that it has nudged back into the black after a difficult period.

Christie’s looks in better shape than Sotheby’s, which remains straddled with enormous overheads, not to mention those troublesome ‘golden handcuffs’ designed to stop its staff deserting like rats from a sinking ship.

Sotheby’s has made some unwise decisions, not least in building an extravagant head office in New York. It has entered into a sale-and-leaseback on the property to free up some cash.

All this poses a challenge for men like Robin Woodhead, Sotheby’s European chief, who moved into the art world from the City, where he ran the London Futures and Options Exchange.

He is one of the few people I know to have been attacked by an elephant – but that’s another story.

Davidge, meanwhile, who departed from Christie’s with a £5m payoff, is not one to dwell on past misfortunes. I hear that he has surfaced in India, complete with his nubile bride Amrita, and spends his time dealing in Asian art. Nothing like making a clean break.

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