Thursday, October 22, 2009

"They came like thieves in the night" – How ABN Amro impounded €40 million worth of art from Dutch museum

As the specialist art press busies itself with yawn-inducing non-stories such as Tracey Emin’s feeble 'defence' of Damien Hirst’s critically demolished paintings at the Wallace Collection, a story with rather more significant implications for the art world has been unfolding over in Holland, as I reported here.

The collapse of Dutch DSB Bank NV on October 19, following a run by customers who withdrew €600 million worth of deposits, led to its main creditor, the mighty ABN Amro, seizing works of art that were destined for the Scheringa Museum of Realist Art, currently under construction (above left). The museum was the brainchild and private passion of DSB Bank’s owner Dirk Scheringa, a former policeman turned financial trader and banker and latterly the owner of champion Dutch soccer club AZ Alkmaar.

The impounded works of art – including pieces by René Magritte, Lucian Freud, Marlene Dumas, Carel Willink and Terry Rodgers – were confiscated without prior warning from ABM Amro. The paintings, drawings and sculptures were scheduled for the inaugural exhibition in May 2010 of the almost completed €30 million state-of-the-art museum in Opmeer, North Holland (above right), which, had it been completed, would have been larger than the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

Video footage of the seizure (see YouTube item posted on my blog entry below) showed curators in tears as the trucks arrived just a day after the museum’s parent company DSB Beheer also filed for bankruptcy in the Dutch courts. Local Dutch press quoted a canteen lady who said: "They [ABN Amro] came like thieves in the night."

The run on the Scheringa Bank appears to have been sparked by critical remarks by the Dutch economist Pieter Nijman Lakeman on the popular breakfast television programme Good Morning Netherlands. It seems Lakeman effectively urged customers to withdraw their money from DSB Bank on the grounds that it had levied excessive fees for mortgages. It was all dismally reminiscent of the demise of British bank Northern Rock here in the UK last year, which also followed a run by its retail customers.

Dirk Scheringa himself (left) appeared on Dutch television to express his bitterness about how matters had developed, saying, “We are not bankrupt, we were destroyed.”

What has been almost entirely overlooked in the affair is the impact on the artists whose work was owned by the museum or on those who were making work to be shown at the new museum next year, some of whom have not been paid. For all the negative press Dirk Scheringa has received regarding his financial dealings, many artists speak of his passion and commitment as a collector.

Earlier this year, the Scheringa Museum was hit by thieves who made off with works by Salvador Dali and Tamara de Lempicka (see Art Theft Central here and the New York Times here). That unfortunate event now looks like small beer next to the arrival of ABN Amro’s trucks.

Are these impounded works now destined for the auction block like those salvaged from doomed US investment bank Lehman Brothers?

This story takes on an altogether different significance in the light of the recent remarkable growth of private museums. As more and more traditional public museums look to deaccessioning as a means of bolstering acquisition funds or reducing storage costs (or indeed to plug gaps in their operating budgets), so benefactors are beginning to shy away from bequeathing works for fear that they may not be held in perpetuity. Many are looking instead to founding their own private museums.

The fate of the Scheringa Museum suggests that even the most well-endowed foundation is vulnerable in these uncertain times.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Scheringa Museum for Realist Art raided by bailiffs

It looks for all the world like a nocturnal art heist, and I suppose in some respects that is what it is. But when a bunch of heavies arrived in a truck this week to empty Holland's Scheringa Museum of Realist Art of its entire collection, it offered further evidence of the increasingly intimate relationship between art and capital and the catastrophic consequences when the relationship founders.

The Museum's demise is directly linked to the collapse of the Dutch DSB Bank owned by the Museum's founder and owner, Dirk Scheringa. The bank suffered a Northern Rock-style run over recent days, effectively forcing it into liquidation by its creditors, Dutch bank ABN Amro (whose removal men were at least considerate enough to use bubble wrap to protect the exhibits they impounded).

This torrid tale might be read as an unwelcome foretelling of how the art market could unfold in the coming few years. For all the upbeat messages spun out of the Frieze Fair this past week by its media owners, the art market might yet suffer from a 'double-dip' recession. The part played by debt funds and the financial sector's other dark materials is already being dramatically played out in Scheringa.

Many believed the Scheringa Museum voor Realisme was independent of the bank, securely funded and firewalled by its 'Foundation' status. In fact, its collection was standing as security for a Euro32 million loan.

More on this in the next few days....