He's more familiar with arbitration battles than auction bids, but that should make Michael Sovern the perfect man to head Sotheby's right now. The besieged New York auction house named Sovern, 68, as its new chairman following the Feb. 21 resignations of Chairman Alfred Taubman and high-profile Chief Executive Diana D. Brooks. Both quit three weeks after rival Christie's said it was cooperating in a Justice Dept. probe of collusion in the auction houses' commission rates, in return for conditional amnesty. Sovern, a former Columbia University president and law professor who is often consulted to resolve disputes, has had little to do with the lofty art world. But now he's charged with repairing Sotheby's reputation while appeasing shareholders, who had pummeled the stock to one-third its 52-week high of 47. Manhattan art dealer Richard Feigen suspects that Sovern is probably an interim CEO and argues that "D.D. Brooks is not going to be easy to replace." Maybe so, but Sotheby's board sees the experienced troubleshooter as a priceless addition to their collection.

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