Alfred Taubman, Mall Developer, Ex-Sotheby’s Chair, Dies at 91

A. Alfred Taubman
Real estate mogul and Michigan billionaire A. Alfred Taubma. Starting with small stores and strip centers, Taubman pioneered the development of regional malls. His Taubman Co. built and operated more than 25 U.S. malls, including the Mall at Short Hills in New Jersey and the Beverly Center in Los Angeles. Photographer: Carlos Osorio/AP Photo

A. Alfred Taubman, the shopping-mall magnate and onetime chairman of Sotheby’s Holdings Inc. who was convicted of fixing prices with rival auction house Christie’s International Plc, has died. He was 91.

Taubman died of a heart attack late Friday at his home in in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, his son and Taubman Centers Inc. Chief Executive Officer Robert S. Taubman said in a statement on the company’s website.

“This company and all that you stand for were among the greatest joys of his life,” Robert Taubman said. “He was so proud of what this wonderful company he founded 65 years ago has accomplished.”

Starting with small stores and strip centers, Taubman pioneered the development of regional malls. His Taubman Co. built and operated more than 25 U.S. malls, including the Mall at Short Hills in New Jersey and the Beverly Center in Los Angeles. The malls generate among the highest sales per square foot -- an average of $809 in 2014, according to the company.

Taubman Centers, a real estate investment trust, began trading on the New York Stock Exchange in 1992. An Asia unit, based in Hong Kong, was formed in 2005.

Forbes Magazine ranked Taubman No. 577 on its 2015 list of the world’s billionaires, with an estimated net worth of $3.1 billion.

The self-made billionaire entered the old-money auction world in 1983 by purchasing Sotheby’s. Some observers suspected he bought Britain’s oldest auction house in revenge for snubs directed at him and his wife, Judy, a former Israeli beauty queen more than 20 years his junior. The Sotheby’s purchase made them the toast of New York, London and Palm Beach society.

Management Experience

Taubman transformed Sotheby’s “from an elitist club into an emporium for the new-money masses, bringing buzz to the auctioning of rugs, paintings and jewelry,” Shawn Tully wrote in a 2000 article in Fortune magazine. He packed its board with friends, British aristocrats with little management experience and aggressive entrepreneurs.

He promoted customer service and brought in Diana “Dede” Brooks, a former Citibank Inc. lending officer who had no art or auction experience, to run day-to-day operations. She made Sotheby’s, long known for understated elegance, a sales center for celebrity memorabilia and items such as Walt Disney cartoon celluloids. She added financing and insurance offerings, and Sotheby’s became the first international auction house to offer bidding on the Internet.

House Arrest

The U.S. Justice Department began investigating Sotheby’s and Christie’s in 1997, when the two firms together controlled more than 90 percent of the world’s $5 billion auction market. Brooks pleaded guilty to antitrust conspiracy and testified against Taubman, blaming him for devising the price-fixing deal. She was sentenced to house arrest.

Taubman argued that Brooks headed up the commission-rigging plan, which kept sellers from getting reduced commission fees. In the past, potential customers had played one auction house against another for the best deal; under the plan, each company offered identical rates.

In 2001, a jury in Manhattan federal court found Taubman guilty of collaborating with Christie’s to fix fees, violating antitrust laws and cheating customers out of roughly $100 million. He resigned as chairman of Sotheby’s and of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan-based Taubman Centers.

Even with letters from more than 90 notable people, including former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former President Gerald Ford, Taubman was sentenced to a year and day in a low-security federal medical prison in Minnesota and fined $7.5 million. He was released two months early in May 2003, and spent a month in a Detroit halfway house.

Price-Fixing

Sotheby’s and Christie’s agreed to pay $512 million to settle a class-action lawsuit brought by 130,000 U.S. buyers and sellers. Taubman paid $156 million of Sotheby’s $256 million share, plus another $30 million to settle a shareholder lawsuit. The president of Christie’s, Sir Anthony Tennant, escaped prosecution because the U.K. wouldn’t extradite him, and price-fixing isn’t illegal in Britain.

Sotheby’s was forced to sell its New York headquarters and fire staff following the settlement. Surging art sales later pushed Sotheby’s past Christie’s as the world’s largest auction house.

Taubman always maintained he broke no laws and took an unfair fall.

“I had served time for others, people going about their lives in New York and London who had initiated, executed and lied about a serious crime for which they would receive little or no punishment,” he wrote in a 2007 memoir.

Sold Shoes

Adolph Alfred Taubman was born on Jan. 31, 1924, in Pontiac, Michigan, to Jewish German immigrants Phillip and Fannie Esther Taubman. He went to work aged 9, during the Great Depression, after his father’s construction business went bankrupt. At 12, Taubman sold shoes after school.

He was an Army Air Corps mapmaker during World War II -- a near-fatal accident during flight training persuaded him to give up on being a pilot -- then attended the University of Michigan from 1945 to 1948.

In 1950, he founded Taubman Co. with a $5,000 loan from Manufacturers National Bank of Detroit and, as he put it in his memoir, a “big dream of designing and building extraordinary retail properties.” He titled the book “Threshold Resistance,” which he defined as “the force that keeps your customer from opening your door and coming in over the threshold.”

Bought Sotheby’s

Taubman bought the A&W Restaurants chain, which had evolved from the A&W Root Beer Co., in 1982. The franchises steadily increased in the U.S. and overseas; Taubman sold his stake in the company to Sidney Feltenstein, a former Dunkin’ Donuts executive, in 1995.

Taubman bought Sotheby’s in 1983 for $37 million when the auction house, founded by Samuel Baker in London in 1774, was in danger of financial collapse. He took the company public in 1988, establishing a special class of B shares that ensured his family’s control of the board.

After Taubman’s 2001 conviction, his son Robert became chairman of Taubman Centers. Another son, William, continued as executive vice president.

Simon Property Group Inc., the largest U.S. shopping mall owner, tried to buy Taubman Centers for $4.25 billion, or $20 a share, in 2003. The Taubman family resisted the buyout.

Taubman donated more than $100 million to medical research, Detroit-area charities and arts and educational institutions. He gave more than $35 million to the University of Michigan, endowing the A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning and various medical facilities. In 2008, he pledged $22 million to the University of Michigan to support the study of stem cells.

The Taubman Center for State and Local Government at Harvard University and Brown University’s public policy and American institutions program are both named for him.

Taubman and his first wife, Reva, divorced in 1977 after a 29-year marriage. They had a daughter, Gayle, in addition to their two sons. Taubman’s second marriage was to the former Judith Rounick.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE