Feds Subpoena eBay Unit Over Price-Fixing Probe

SAN FRANCISCO (03/30/2000) - EBay Inc. said today it had received a grand jury subpoena from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) that it believes is related to the high-profile price-fixing probe of auction houses Sotheby's and Christie's.

EBay's Butterfield & Butterfield unit received the subpoena from the department's antitrust division on March 24, according to eBay's annual report filed today with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). The subpoena sought documents related to "changes in Butterfield and Butterfield sellers' commissions and buyers' premiums, and discussions, agreements or understandings with other auction houses," dating back to 1992, according to the filing.

The department and the European Commission are investigating whether the world's two leading auction houses, Sotheby's Holdings and Christie's International, have conspired to fix the commissions paid by buyers and sellers at auctions. Before being acquired by eBay in April 1999, Butterfield & Butterfield was the country's third-largest auctioneer, specializing in art and antiques.

"The company believes this request may be related to a publicly reported criminal investigation of auction houses for price fixing," eBay said in its filing.

Company spokesman Kevin Pursglove says the company would cooperate fully, but declined to comment further. It is unclear whether the subpoena indicates that Butterfield & Butterfield is itself a target of the probe.

"Although the subpoena is not an indication of any wrongdoing, the types of documents requested are clearly consistent with a grand jury investigation of whether Butterfield & Butterfield participated in the alleged price-fixing scheme," says Rich Gray, a Menlo Park, California-based antitrust and intellectual property lawyer.

Department of Justice representatives were not immediately available for comment.

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