Friday, December 21, 2012

If 'luxe' could kill: Artists don't want to be artists...they want to make handbags

Yayoi-Vuitton at Selfridges
I thought I'd wrapped it up for Christmas and then along comes an excellent piece by Charlotte Burns, The Art Newspaper's ace art market reporter, on the Faustian pact between high-end contemporary artists and luxury brand strategies.

The 'luxury brand' concept — whereby we tend to view the work of people like Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, and Damien Hirst in the same way that we view a Hermès handbag, Louis Vuitton luggage or a Rolex watch — is still relatively recent in the art world. As is the name-checking of economists in articles about the art market (it used to be art critics who were liberally quoted in market analyses).

Burns argues that the shine of luxury brands might finally be fading and she lists sliding share prices for Mulberry and Burberry in evidence, quoting Burberry’s finance director, Stacey Cartwright, on the decline of so-called “aspirational” middle class shoppers as one reason for the gloomy price warnings.

This reminded me of the famous "£100 rule" coined by Sotheby's marketing guru Stanley Clarke in the 1950s. After crunching the numbers, he told Sotheby's boss Peter Wilson that the firm's core business was not in multi-million dollar Cézannes and Monets, as many people assumed, but in objects worth £100 and less. Diana 'Dede' Brooks, Sotheby's CEO in the 1990s updated that mantra during her company's ill-advised marriage to Plus ça change. As Charlotte Burns correctly points out, "While the top end of the market is not much affected by the woes of the middle class, a healthy mid-section is vital for long-term health." That's another reminder that although Koons, Hirst and Murakami remain the cynosure of media eyes, they represent just one of the many mansions within the art market house.

Yayoi Kusama's window at Selfridges' London store
In any event, I'm not at all sure that the products these three jokers release onto the world can properly be described as luxury brands. The branding aspect of their work has never been properly explained, Don Thompson's popularising efforts notwithstanding. Their work may be hugely expensive and thus available only to Ultra High Net Worth Individuals, but that in itself does not make them 'brands'.

Yayoi Kusama's cross-pollination with Louis Vuitton is a far more compelling instance of an artist seeking to partake of the luxury brand cachet. Most members of the general public who passed Selfridges' window during Kusama's recent Louis Vuitton installation in London (above right) would not have recognised her (the window contained multiple Kusama mannequins) or known she was a contemporary artist. But perhaps the issue is that even if they had, they would not have been surprised.

Maybe that's the real reason she, and Hirst, and Koons are leaving über-dealer Larry Gagosian. They don't want to be artists; they want to be handbag designers.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Less is more: The great Leonard Bernstein conducting

My final post for 2012 (and no, not because the Mayan-predicted Armageddon is coming) is a short video of the magnificent Leonard Bernstein proving that you don't need to wave a baton to get a great performance from your musicians. An approving pout will do...

Friday, December 7, 2012

The economic case for government funding of art and culture is heating up. Time for some lemonade...

Here's a short video by my friend David Castello-Lopes and his collaborator Léonard Cohen, which makes the case for public funding of culture in a witty and elegant way. It's set in the Tuileries Gardens in Paris, but I'm hoping I can persuade David and Léonard to do one for the UK too, although the message is universal.

The issue of how to value culture in economic terms was hotly debated by participants at the recent Forum d'Avignon. Isn't it time we convened our own version of Forum d'Avignon here in the UK to make a forceful case for the fact that the arts and culture generally are not just superfluous add-ons that people do in their evenings and free time, but a critical part of the engine of economic growth.

Maybe we should be rallying support from Guardian Culture Professionals and others to create a two- or three-day forum to drive this message home.

  The Parable Of The Tuileries. Public funding in culture and arts: A handful of positive economic aspects. from Léonard Cohen on Vimeo.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

EXCLUSIVE: US sculptor files copyright complaint against billionaire property developer Igor Olenicoff

Olenicoff's copy of Wakefield's work
Following my report in The Art Newspaper in July 2011, and which I also reported on Artknows here, I can now report that Russian-born billionaire property developer and convicted tax felon Igor Olenicoff and the company he founded, Olen Properties Corp., are being sued by contemporary artist Don Wakefield for alleged copyright infringement.

In 2011 it emerged that Wakefield had found at least seven unauthorised copies of a unique, large-scale granite sculpture he had created in 1992 on properties owned by Olen Properties in Brea, Irvine and Newport Beach, California. 

In his copyright complaint filed this week in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, Wakefield alleges that Olenicoff wrongly presented the work to the Public Art Department in the City of Brea, California, and to the public in general, as the work of a Chinese artist.

Following my publication in The Art Newspaper of Wakefield’s claims, another American artist, John Raimondi, came forward with similar allegations against Olenicoff. Raimondi has filed a separate copyright complaint against the property developer and his company.

Igor Olenicoff: Forbes lists his wealth at $2.4 billion
In 2007, Igor Olenicoff admitted lying on his tax returns about his ownership of a number of foreign bank accounts. He was convicted of tax fraud and had to pay the US Government over $52M in fines. He is still listed as a billionaire on Forbes list of the wealthiest Americans. Bradley Birkenfeld, an employee of UBS at that time and the whistle-blower in Olenicoff’s 2007 tax-avoidance case, was recently awarded $104m from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) for drawing attention to the illegal Swiss accounts held by Olenicoff and others.

UBS are the corporate sponsors of Art Basel Miami Beach contemporary art fair that is currently preoccupying most of the major art news outlets.

Don Wakefield says he has proof that Olenicoff was ordering copies of his work to be made in China and that he then submitted some of the sculptures to the Public Art Program in the City of Brea, California, bypassing the artists altogether, thereby saving himself significant expense.

Detroit-born Wakefield, who now lives in Southern California, found the first piece in 2008 but thought it was the original. He only realized his sculpture had been copied when he discovered three additional unauthorized copies in 2010 and three more in 2011. Later it emerged that several unauthorized copies of two different sculptures by east coast American artist John Raimondi were also found as a result of Wakefield’s investigation.

Wakefield believes that in terms of the size of the works — some being 25ft tall — the case represents one the largest copyright infringements in American legal history.

Both Wakefield and Raimondi are represented by attorneys Gene Brockland of law firm Herzog Crebs of St. Louis, Missouri and Mike Kuznetsky of Kuznetsky Law Group, Los Angeles. Both cases are pending in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.

"Insufficient commitment" from the UK trade forces cancellation of leading antiques fair

LAPADA President Earl Howe and Judith Miller in happier times
The January 2013 edition of the National Fine Art and Antiques Fair, scheduled to take place at the National Exhibition Centre (NEC) in Birmingham from 16-20 January, has been cancelled due to what the organisers, Clarion Events, describe as "insufficient commitment from the trade".

This is a major blow to Clarion and doubtless also something of an embarrassment to the London and Provincial Antique Dealers' Association (LAPADA) and the British Antique Dealers' Association (BADA), the two UK trade associations whose members make up the majority of the dealers who usually exhibit at the fair.

Meanwhile, over in Miami, the annual Art Basel Miami Beach contemporary art fair continues to attract the super-rich collectors, or what another collector/speculator, Adam Lindemann, has described as "scenesters, people who don’t even pretend they are remotely interested in art.”

According to The Art Newspaper, Mr Lindemann recently penned a stinging attack on contemporary art fairs, adding his voice to others at the top of the market who have been pouring scorn on the oligarchs and other philistine trophy-hunters attracted by the rising prices for high-end art.

Jeff Koons, Hanging Heart, 2006
But it's not as if Mr Lindemann hasn't himself pumped this market. In 2006, he bought Jeff Koons's Hanging Heart (right) from Larry Gagosian for $4 million only to 'flip' it at Sotheby's months later for $23 million, on which occasion Gagosian bought it back (see my report of that sale here).

Over the past twenty-five years the pattern hasn't changed. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Forbes recently reported that the fortunes of the three wealthiest people in America — Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and Larry Ellison were up $7 billion, $7 billion and $8 billion, respectively, despite the three men's charitable donations. The art market mirrors that trend with the top of the market remaining strong and the middle squeezed.

So, back in the UK, if you were planning on a New Year trip to Birmingham for a little antiques shopping, you should adjust your calendar. Was the cancellation of the National Fine Art & Antiques Fair in part an issue of location, underscoring the 'north-south' divide? Are London-based LAPADA and BADA members reluctant to travel north? One can't see BADA members showing "insufficient commitment" to their own London-based fair on 13-19 March 2013. 

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Anish Kapoor & Co. — Gangnam Style!

Amnesty activists and leading members of the cultural world gathered at Anish Kapoor’s London studio to make a special Gangnam Style film in support of the artist, Ai Weiwei.

Anish Kapoor said: “Our film aims to make a serious point about freedom of speech and freedom of expression. It is our hope that this gesture of support for Ai Weiwei and all prisoners of conscience will be wide-ranging and will help to emphasise how important these freedoms are to us all.”

Bravo, Anish!

Friday, November 9, 2012

Your weekend watching: James Cuno on Cultural Property

Thanks to Kwame Opoku for alerting me to this video (below) of a recent discussion between James Cuno and Maxwell Anderson on Museums and Cultural Property.

It begins with an extraordinarily politicized preamble from Getty CEO James Cuno who accuses countries seeking the return of their cultural objects of politicized nationalist agendas. His own agenda — to refuse to return objects acquired by Western imperial nations during the imperial era that are now in American museums — professes to be apolitical but is revealed here as rabidly political in its suspicion of those countries seeking an equitable share of cultural heritage (particularly of those objects taken from their lands).

Cuno is right, the Euphronius krater, recently returned by the Metropolitan Museum in New York to Italy (from where it was illicitly removed during the 1970s) is indeed Greek rather than Italian in origin. But that does not mean that an American museum has a greater right to own it and display it (and benefit from the cultural tourism it helps generate as a consequence) than an Italian Museum.

This is the basic problem with Cuno's argument. He is right that culture is essentially "mongrel" and hybrid, but he is yet to offer credible reasons why America has a more legitimate right to keep and curate the world's cultural heritage than any other nation. In the absence of those reasons, his championship of encyclopaedic museums as the legitimate Enlightenment-born stewards of the world's cultural heritage will continue to look like nothing less than nationalism of a different sort.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Art Market: Hacks and critics abandon ship

Wow! Huh? US art critic Dave Hickey (left) and Canadian art market hack Sarah Thornton have both decided to give up on the art world. Does it matter? Does their decision to ride off into the sunset tell us anything about the current state of the art market that we didn't already know?  

Hickey has thrown the towel in on the grounds that the art market has become "calcified, self-reverential and a hostage to rich collectors who have no respect for what they are doing," while Thornton, whose art market primer, Seven Days in the Art World, remains a best-seller, has listed on her blog her ten reasons why she is quitting. One of them, perhaps unsurprisingly, is related to the activities of oligarchs.

"Oligarchs and dictators are not cool," she opines, having finally worked out that, "some of the biggest spenders in the art market right now are people who made their money in non-democracies with horrendous human rights records."

In case we get the wrong idea, Sarah goes on to reassure us that, "Some of my best friends are high net worth individuals,thereby revealing the standard art market obsession with the wealth of others.

It's disappointing to see Dave Hickey withdraw, but in reality his line of sophisticated, well-informed, no-holds-barred, occasionally cuss-laden criticism never had much to do with the art market anyway (his great essay 'The Birth of the Big, Beautiful Art Market' was about his love affair with cars as much as it was about the art market). Unlike the Jerry Saltz's of this world who long ago disappeared up the all-consuming fundament of reality game-show television, Hickey has held fast to aesthetics, to a brand of uncompromising, theoretical art criticism that has become one of the most conspicuous casualities of the money-obsessed art market.

Sarah Thornton
Why did Sarah Thornton call a cab? Her departure will be seen by many as the art world's loss. She is an intelligent and observant commentator, albeit queasily in thrall to the celebrity-dominated upper reaches of the blue-chip art market (as her strangely boastful reference to her High Net Worth friends makes clear).

Many of her ten reasons for quitting are understandable, but most of them have been part of the art market for the past twenty-five years. Reporting on art sales has always been a repetitive, largely pointless activity (but arguably now more so than ever), while it has long been common knowledge that art fairs churn out vapid post-event press releases and spin false stories to a credulous press. In fact, many of the practices we see around us today were coded into the market's DNA way back in the early modern era. But on one matter she is right on the money.  

Back-office manipulation, money-laundering, weird third-party underwriting and other forms of exotic financial chicanery have become far more widespread in recent years, frequently whispered about over  cocktails but never exposed by a now largely supine press fearful of litigation.  

Sarah is not the only one who has had to bin a story for which a bullet-proof case can be made but which is spiked on the grounds that it won't get past the lawyers. (Sorry if I seem to be getting at the lawyers again; I know they're only doing their jobs, but look what's happening as a consequence.)

Cheerio, Dave and Sarah. My guess is that you'll both be back.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Horror, The Horror: Neil MacGregor recalls The Shock of The Thing

Some of us never fully recover from horrific experiences, nor indeed from the more gory horror films.

Hitchcock's Psycho made an indelible impression on me as a youngster and I still flinch whenever I see that little bald-headed organism come snarling out of John Hurt's chest cavity in Ridley Scott's masterly Alien. But I shuddered even more when I watched John Carpenter's 1982 chiller, The Thing.

Little did I realise at the time that the film was actually based on real-life events experienced by British Museum director Neil MacGregor. It seems Mr MacGregor is still suffering nightmares after surviving that alien invasion while working as a young archivist at the British Museum's Antarctic Research Laboratory in the 1970s. Acclaimed film director John Carpenter turned those stomach-churning events into The Thing.

"Give us back our Things"
Mr MacGregor has now bravely agreed to revisit the terrifying time when he and a group of trainee universal museum directors found themselves trapped in an inhospitable environment, invaded by grotesque extraterrestrial parasites (right) demanding the return of their cultural property from Universal Museums.

He will be recounting his experiences in the inaugural Robert Hughes Memorial Lecture entitled The Shock of The Thing at the National Gallery of Australia on 13 November.

It is clear from Mr MacGregor's glassy stare in the pre-event publicity flyer (above left) that he is still suffering inner turmoil, ever fearful that the aliens, infected by the deadly Cultural Property Restitution virus will return to attack his institution and take back their "Things". One can only sympathise.

Kurt Russell as a young Neil MacGregor in The Thing
Unresolved childhood traumas don't last forever, but denial will only make matters worse. Better to take the same course of action as Kurt Russell, who played the young Neil MacGregor in the film (left) —sit down, open a bottle, and accept your fate — the aliens are can run, but you can't hide.

Neil MacGregor, Director, British Museum, London, will present The Shock of The Thing, the inaugural Robert Hughes Memorial Lecture at the National Gallery, Australia on Tuesday November 13.
Venue: James O Fairfax Theatre
Price : $20, $15 members (Bookings essential)
Booking: Bookings

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Art vandals: hanging's too good for them

The conflation of criminal acts and celebrity culture is becoming ever more prominent and it's hard to know what to ascribe it to. Historically, art fakers and forgers have been drawn predominantly from the ranks of failed painters and sculptors whose own work was never good enough to win them entry into the legitimate market. Following the defacing of a Mark Rothko painting at Tate Modern, we can add graffiti artists to the rogues gallery.

The most recent slippage between crime and celebrity comes with the decision by a Houston, Texas "art dealer" to stage an exhibition of paintings (to call them works of art would be to bastardize the English language as well as aesthetics) by Uriel Landeros, who spray-painted a Picasso canvas at the Menil Gallery in June this year.

According to CBC News, Landeros has been "on the lam" since being charged with the descration of the Picasso work, but this hasn't stopped James Perez (above left), owner of the Cueto James Gallery in Houson, from offering Landeros the oxygen of publicity.

One glance at the execrable objects hanging behind Perez in the image above is enough to confirm Landeros as laughably devoid of talent and Perez as an attention-seeking opportunist. To add insult to the injury felt by thousands of Menil Gallery visitors who value their local culture, Perez has said of Landeros's act of vandalism, "It's just taking something and making it your own. I like what Uriel did. That it makes it yours," at a stroke cementing his own philistine credentials.

Landeros did not make the Picasso his own. The restorers will restore it (they have almost completed that process), Picasso's fame will endure and Landeros and his crapulous Houston cheerleader will descend back into the swamp of oblivion where they belong.

Perez is confident that his gallery will be packed to the rafters on the opening night. Pigs will feed at the trough whatever the farmer fills it with.

Who's to blame? Such egregious acts of vandalism may be partly motivated by a common misunderstanding of a number of seminal moments in recent art history, a few of which include: Marcel Duchamp for changing the rules of engagement as to what constitutes art; Robert Rauschenberg for erasing a De Kooning drawing and thereby claiming authorship of it; Andy Warhol for predicting that "everybody will be world famous for fifteen minutes"; Richard Prince, Sherry Levine and the 'Pictures' generation for photographing other artists' photographs; Banksy for smuggling his stencilled works into the Tate in the belief that they deserved to be there; the media for giving broadcast time to convicted art forgers like John Myatt; law enforcement agencies for failing to hand down proper sentences to criminal vandals; speculators and hedge fund managers for turning the art market into a casino. All of us for treating museums and galleries as places of worship.

But the real issue here is to do with ethics, or the lack thereof. Perez's failure to do the right thing and give Landeros a wide berth will only encourage others to take the spray-can, the knife, and the felt-pen to our greatest works of art.

According to a Texas district attorney, Landeros faces between two and ten years in jail and a $10,000 fine.

Why not make that the full ten years and $100,000?

Image above: Houston Chronicle/ Melissa Phillip/Associated Press

Friday, October 26, 2012

Could New York legal ruling deliver greater transparency to the art market? The jury’s out

Thanks to Larry Rothfield’s Punching Bag blog for drawing attention to the recent law case in the New York Supreme Court which, if it is upheld, could force fine art auctioneers to disclose the identities of consignors to their auctions.

The implications for an art market that thrives on its inherent opacity are interesting, to say the least.

The ruling concerns a case that dates back to 2008 when Albert Rabizadeh, a Long Island dealer, bid $460,000 (including buyer’s premium) at William J. Jenack auction house in Chester, New York (above left) for a Russian silver and enamel box by the imperial jeweller Ivan Petrovich Khlebnikov (1819-1881).

When Rabizadeh later failed to pay for the lot, Jenack sued Rabizadeh in the New York courts before reoffering the box in their May auction. The New York Supreme Court ordered Rabizadeh to pay the full original price of $460,000, less the $109,250 which the box realised at the May auction.

However, instead of complying with the court order, Rabizadeh counter-sued, arguing that the original contract was effectively void on the grounds that the auction house had failed to disclose the identity of the consignor.

His case rested on what is known in contract law as The General Obligations Law § 5-701(a)(6) which requires that the necessary memorandum of sale, “be it in one writing or multiple writings, reveal the identity of, not merely a number assigned to, the parties to the contract.” (See a link to the original Appellate court judgement at the foot of this piece.)

In a surprise judgement in September, the New York Supreme Court upheld Rabizadeh’s argument, ruling that for a sale contract to be binding it must specify the names of both buyer and seller.

Perhaps understandably, the Jenack auction house is appealing that judgement and it has now been joined by Christie’s. So what chance of this ruling be upheld?

Larry Rothfield is understandably interested in the implications for antiquities sales since it is a reasonable assumption that a legal obligation on the part of auction houses to reveal the identity of their consignors might go some way towards reducing the number of illicitly-acquired antiquities reaching the open market. After all, it is common knowledge that the big auction houses are less than diligent in screening the provenance of goods consigned for sale.

But there are other implications for fine art auctions in general. Auction houses are already required to make clear, via a symbol in their conditions of sale, which lots in the catalogue are the subject of “irrevocable bids” (third party underwriting of guarantees.) Given that the bigger fine art auction houses now frequently act as principals in auction transactions rather than as agents for the vendor, this Supreme Court ruling, if it is upheld, would surely require the auction houses to specify when they are themselves vendors in the transactions. At present that is far from clear.

On a positive note, the ruling, if upheld, might help provenance research since it would offer immediate clarity on the most recent owners. It would also deliver a long-overdue death blow to the risible “Swiss Private Collection” — surely the most obscurantist citation in the antiquities trade — while the traditional “Property of a Gentleman” may no longer be sufficient either.

The identity of consignors has for generations, indeed centuries, been shrouded in secrecy. The vast majority of dealers, and indeed private private vendors, do not want their identities revealed when consigning goods to auction. My guess is that overturning that tradition would be widely perceived as a step too far. For good reasons, the notional transparency that is permanently on everyone’s lips never actually materializes in practice.

At a recent open forum at a major fine art fair in Miami, the distinguished panellists were asked by a member of the audience whether they thought greater transparency and openness would improve the art trade or impede it. After much shilly-shallying and mumbling into water glasses the consensus seemed to suggest that, depending on how far it went, it could irreparably damage the trade.

The art law professors will have their own opinions, but I, for one, cannot see a New York judge upholding a ruling that could blow a big hole in New York’s status as a fulcrum of the international art market. The inexorable growth of China is enough of a challenge to the American art market without judges, largely ignorant of the nuances of the art trade, sticking their oar in as well.

The Swiss Private Collection may yet survive...

View a PDF of the September 19 court ruling in William J. Jenack Estate Appraisers & Auctioneers, Inc. v Rabizadeh here

Monday, October 22, 2012

Rotterdam Art Heist: Real Theft, Real Value, Real Business

I’m afraid I just can’t leave this one alone.

Referring to the perpetrators of the recent multi-million dollar Rotterdam art heist, retired FBI art investigator Robert Wittman has told America’s National Public Radio channel: “...they don't have a plan for monetizing the artworks.”

Bob Wittman has many years of experience as a cop, but, with respect, Bob, how do you know what plans the Rotterdam art thieves have, or don’t have? Law enforcement agencies currently know nothing about these people, their nationalities, their motives, or the channels in which they move. If we did know from deep past experience, then more of these crimes would have been solved. The truth is our lamentable record in cracking major art thefts is surpassed only by our laughable failure properly to secure our galleries and museums.

Instead all we have on the Rotterdam heist are a few seconds of grainy CCTV camera footage that might have been shot by Eisenstein on a bad day. So will someone please tell me the purpose of what Kunsthal director Emily Ansenk herself described as a “multi-million-euro high-tech...state-of-the-art security system” if all it can do is mimic out-takes from early Expressionist cinema?

And the Oscar goes to....the CCTV camera companies! (for pulling off the greatest multi-million-dollar heist of all).

Asked whether art thieves, unable to sell their works, end up destroying their loot, Bob Wittman opined, “They don't destroy them because they know there's a lot of value.”

And that is surely the issue, despite what just about every media channel has been peddling over the past week — that these works have no value (because they can't be sold). But who said the thieves intend to sell them?

There is value in stolen art and like everything else it is represented by a price. It may not be the price a conventional collector or a dealer might pay on the legitimate market. It certainly wouldn’t be what an open public auction would bring. None of these routes to market are available to art thieves. But that doesn’t mean there is no value in these stolen works. The thieves know there is value; ergo, they are not stupid. I’d venture they are not even “terrible businessmen” as Mr Wittman contends. They may not conform to Bob Wittman's model of what a businessman should be, but that doesn’t mean these people are not good at their own branch of business. It may be dark and subterranean, but it’s still business and they may be good at it, otherwise they would not do what they do. (They beat a “multi-million-euro high-tech...state-of-the-art security system” for starters.

That is the real economy of art theft and if we treated these crimes (and yes, their perpetrators) with some (albeit grudging) respect we may get closer to cracking them...and to properly defending our museums.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Will we never learn from art theft? Value is in the eye of the holder

"The Rotterdam art thieves won't find collectors for their multi-million dollar loot," thundered The Guardian's Edward Dolnick following the recent multi-million dollar heist from Rotterdam's Kunsthal museum.

As usual there was no shortage of experts on hand to sprinkle words of wisdom before the scribbling press pack, in the process effectively congratulating the criminals on a great job and confirming how hugely valuable the works would be on the open market.

But the overriding message — a now wearily familiar tune — was that the thief or thieves were just plain stupid because nobody in their right mind would buy these works and no auction house or dealer would handle them. But of course that's not why the criminals stole them.

If we think about this another way, heists like this aren't stupid at all. If works of this importance had no economic value at all to thieves — what economists like to call 'utility' — thieves wouldn't steal them. The price that a Picasso might make on the legitimate open market is only one kind of value. Art market journalists, economists and others spend a good deal of time pondering how blue-chip works of art can justify the astronomical prices they achieve (see, for example, the perfectly sensible questions arising from the recent sale of Gerhard Richter's Abstraktes Bild for £21 million). So why do we see the potential 'black market' price of a stolen work of art as less meaningful, or useful to those holding it, than the prices achieved for comparable works at a high-end auction? Context is everything.

As some commentators rightly pointed out, there are multiple ways in which these works can deliver a return on the risks involved in stealing them. Many people still smell the rat scuttling around the Turners stolen from the Frankfurt Museum and subsequently returned to the Tate after money changed hands. A certain sfumato shrouds all art theft and recovery. And there are many cards that can be played by not-so-stupid art thieves holding stolen Picassos and Matisses — The Collateral Drugs-and-Arms Card; the Insurance Ransom Card; the Reduce-My-Jail-Time Card; the list goes on.

And finally, as Museum Security Network founder Ton Cremers rightly pointed out, and as the heist confirmed, the Rotterdam Kunsthal was woefully deficient in its security. Owners of works of such art historical importance and market value will surely look more closely in future before loaning those works to poorly secured venues.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Greece prepares for fresh assault on the British Museum over the Parthenon Marbles

The Greek Ministry of Culture has just announced that it will re-establish a special advisory committee to coordinate actions aimed at securing the repatriation of the Parthenon Marbles from the British Museum. The president of the Melina Mercouri Foundation, Christoforos Argyropoulos; archaeologist Dr Elena Korka; attorney Irini Stamatoudi, who heads the Intellectual Property Organisation; and foreign ministry representative Panos Kalogeropoulos were listed as members of the committee, announced by Alternate Culture Minister Costas Tzavaras on Wednesday.
"Greece's moral right is above every objection that is based on arguments aired as mere delay tactics, and aiming to brush aside the basic principle that is universally applied, namely, the necessity of cultural monuments to be repatriated, meaning a return to the place of their origin," Mr Tzavaras said.
That word "universally" jumps off the page. I'm not so sure the British Museum — the self-styled "universal" museum par excellence — would subscribe to any principle, basic or otherwise, that would support the repatriation of cultural monuments to their place of origin.

Meanwhile, December could be crunch time for the Greek economy, with commentators of every stripe queuing up to predict Greece's exit from the Eurozone. Were that to happen it would surely increase the desire for repatriation of the Marbles as Greece seeks to reassemble its sense of national pride and cultural identity. If the Marbles are essential to the British Museum's tourist revenues — which we know them to be — it logically follows that they would bring a similar benefit to the New Acropolis Museum were they to be installed where they belong in the new museum's beautiful Parthenon Galleries.

It will be interesting to see whether this new cultural committee manages (where past initiatives have signally failed) to maintain its momentum and presses its claim through the proper diplomatic channels with a tough follow-through.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Farewell "tough cookie" Robert Hughes

The great Australian art critic Robert Hughes has died in a New York hospital after a long illness. He was not only a writer of coruscating criticism, but a fearless opponent of an often mindless art market populated at the top by people with more money than sense.

The brief video conversation between Hughes and art collector Alberto Mugrabi (posted below), whose father is said to own around 800 Andy Warhol paintings, is as telling a tribute to Hughes as one could wish for.

Marion Maneker's Art Market Monitor blog — a lamentably unquestioning cheerleader for the art market — described Hughes's approach in this clip as "bullying," failing to appreciate that this was the essence of Hughes's style and critical mindset. If he appeared bullying it is perhaps because Mugrabi was made to look like a man without any real opinion or critical apparatus of his own.

"It reminds one of the great antipathy that exists towards the art market," concluded Maneker. You're misguided there, Marion. It reveals how there are still a few people (Hughes's death sadly now makes it one fewer) who know that the art market would be a better place were it not entirely dominated by people with no properly developed opinions but who are rich enough to stockpile works of art as if they were cans of beans.

As Hughes departs Mugrabi's apartment, the New York dealer is heard to mutter, "He's a tough cookie." He was, and for that very reason he will be sadly missed.

Tom Flynn's speech on the Universal Museum at London Parthenon Marbles colloquy

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Gagosian's art police close ranks to protect Hirst's flayed saint

I visited the Masterpiece fine art fair in Chelsea today to report it for the US press. The fair is essentially a carbon copy of the European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht but with the Dutch charm of TEFAF replaced by a hefty dollop of London snobbery. Where Maastricht comes across as stylish, welcoming, expansive and friendly, Masterpiece is snooty, stand-offish and socially constipated. But it's probably different if you're stinking rich. I guess it's all in the body language.

Earlier in the day I'd been wondering how the traders at Barclays and other banks spent all the cash they syphoned out of the system by fraudulently manipulating the LIBOR inter-bank lending rate. Now I know. They taxi over to fairs like Masterpiece and pump all their ill-gotten gains into Riva power boats, Rolls Royces and kitsch contemporary art. The Rolls Royce on display had lambswool carpeting in the boot to 'cosset' your luxury luggage.

The whole laughable jamboree is staged in a massive marquee the size of Ukraine, the façade of which is made to look like a Georgian terrace (above left).
The Ghost of St Bartolomew at Masterpiece

And then there's the art police. I emerged from one of the wide avenues to find myself in a huge open space in the centre of the marquee. To the left was a champagne bar the length of the QE2, to the right a neon sign for Le Caprice restaurant and everywhere there were banquettes on which the poor exhausted millionaires can languish and pour Ruinart fizz down their parched Ultra High Net Worth Throats (UHNWTs). It resembled the Business Class lounge at Heathrow.

Looking out over this elegant scene was a gold-plated écorché figure by Damien Hirst, way up on a pedestal. It's called St Bartholemew and the last time I saw him he was flat on his back at the Pangolin bronze foundry in Gloucestershire being lovingly burnished by one of the foundry's devoted staff. So I'm accustomed to the shiny flayed chappie with his skin draped over his arm, bless him.

I reached for my camera — not, I hasten to add, to photograph the Hirst, which I have enough images of already, thank you — but to take a shot of this incomprehensibly vast public space in the centre of the marquee. Where TEFAF would be heaving by 11am most days, this place was as deserted as a De Chirico piazza.

No sooner had I taken the shot when two unfeasibly well-groomed 20-something supermodel types materialised out of nowhere, hair flowing, Colgate fangs bared.

"Excuse me," they brayed in cut-crystal Manhattan Wasp accents, "You can't photograph that."
"Can't photograph what?" I asked, genuinely baffled.
"The sculpture," they said, gesturing towards the Hirst.
"I wasn't taking a picture of that," I replied. "I was photographing this huge public space."
"This is a project space," they hissed in unison. "If you want to photograph the sculpture you need to apply to the Gagosian Gallery for permission. We hold the rights. You can't publish it anywhere without permission."
"Ah, I see, you hold the rights. I'm very pleased for you," I said. "How much is it? The sculpture, I mean." (I knew they wouldn't tell.)
"We can't disclose the price."
"But if I was Brad Pitt and asked you, would you tell me then?"
"Brad Pitt wouldn't need to ask and we wouldn't want anyone knowing the price of the works he buys either," they sneered, entirely missing the point.
"Can I touch it?" I said, now determined to provoke.
"No, you can't. It would damage the surface of the work. It's gold-plated on solid silver and it's very fragile."
"Ah, so hang on, let me get this straight. I can't touch it, I can't photograph it, I'm not allowed to know the price of it. Are you sure I'm even allowed to look at it? What's the point of it?"

They looked me up and down as they would a dog turd that had suddenly materialised on the lovely Masterpiece carpet.

I strolled away. The two Gagosian shop assistants resumed their sentry positions on the nearby banquette, hauteur intact. St Bartholomew looked calmly out over the deserted champagne bar.

They really need to keep riff-raff like me away from the luxury goods.

(I have removed the St Bartholomew from the image above, not out of obedience to the delusional Gagosian Gallery, but because the scene looks better without it, illustrating the vacuousness of the contemporary art market.)

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Defenders of the British Museum demolished in public debate over the Parthenon Marbles

Further compelling evidence of the British public's unerring instinct for reasonableness and sound ethical judgement was provided by a recent debate at Cadogan Hall (left) over whether the Parthenon Marbles — looted by Lord Elgin and still retained by the British Museum — should be returned to Athens. I've posted the YouTube edited highlights of the debate, organised by Intelligence Squared, below.

Speaking in favour of the motion for returning the Marbles to Athens were the Liberal Democrat MP Andrew George and the actor Stephen Fry; while opposing the motion were the Labour MP and historian Tristram Hunt and the USA-based British historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto. 

The debate was chaired by BBC World News presenter Zeinab Badawi in front of an invited audience of around 550 people.

Send Them Back: The Parthenon Marbles should be returned to Athens

Before the debate, the audience voted like this:
FOR: 196

After the debate, the audience voted like this:
FOR: 384 (+188)
AGAINST: 125 (-77)
UNDECIDED: 24 (-134)

Thus the motion to return the Parthenon Marbles to Athens was carried

Yet again, the public has made its opinion resoundingly clear on this issue. When will the British Museum acknowledge that its retention of the Marbles is no longer acceptable? 

The text of my paper on this subject, delivered at last week's Colloquy on the Parthenon Marbles at the London Hellenic Centre, is now online here, courtesy of Moving Universe.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Crowd-sourcing the looting of cultural heritage

Dr. Shawn Graham, a 'digital archaeologist' and Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities at Carleton University in Ottawa Canada, is monitoring the looting of cultural heritage as a crowd-sourcing project.

Dr Graham's web project is clearly benefiting from the work of award-winning UK archaeologist and cultural heritage-looting sleuth Professor David Gill at University Campus, Suffolk, England, and the regular blog posts of Dr Derek Fincham, Academic Director of ARCA (Association for Research into Crimes Against Art), which holds its annual conference in Amelia, Umbria, this coming weekend.

I will be heading out to Amelia in a few weeks to undertake my annual ARCA lecturing stint, always a rewarding experience.

Note to self: don't forget to pack the diamond tiara.

Crowd-Sourcing the Looting of Cultural Heritage

Dr. Shawn Graham, a 'digital archaeologist' and Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities at Carleton University in Ottawa Canada, is monitoring the looting of cultural heritage as a crowd-sourcing project (screen grab, left).

Dr Graham's project is clearly benefiting from the excellent work of award-winning UK archaeologist and cultural heritage sleuth Professor David Gill at University Campus, Suffolk, England, and the regular blog posts of Dr Derek Fincham, Academic Director of ARCA (Association for Research into Crimes Against Art), which holds its annual conference in Amelia, Umbria, this coming weekend.

I will be heading out to Amelia in a few weeks to undertake my annual ARCA lecturing stint, always a rewarding experience.

Note to self: don't forget to pack the diamond tiara.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Tartan toff's tiara turns up at Turnbull's

If your valuable jewellery got lost at Glasgow Airport, what would you do? You'd register it as stolen with the airport authorities, wouldn't you? You'd probably even leave your name and address which, if you were a member of an aristocratic Scottish clan with a noble pile in the Highlands, would doubtless be pretty memorable to whoever was taking down your details. "Inverarary Castle? How are you spelling that, Ma'am?"

What would you do then? Well, you could go home and weep into the ancestral quaich. Or you might do the sensible thing and register the lost jewels with a company that keeps a database of stolen objects in the hope that if the jewels are ever consigned to an auction, the auction house will be one of those that submits its catalogues to the same company that keeps a database of stolen objects, one of whose duties is to cross-check auction catalogues against the database of stolen objects in order to recover any items that have been registered as stolen that subsequently find their way into an auction. That process is called doing Due Diligence.

Simple, yes? Well, apparently not, Jimmy.

The Duchess of Argyll (above) lost £100,000 worth of jewellery at Glasgow airport in 2006, including a diamond tiara and a Cartier brooch. Incredibly, on finding the jewels some time later, Glasgow Airport Authority did what you'd expect an irresponsible agency to do — they sold them. No, apparently they didn't check with the databases of stolen objects to check whether the jewels had been registered as missing. They just flogged them. That is called failing to do Due Diligence.

Six years later, the eagle-eyed Duchess spotted one of her family baubles — a Cartier brooch — in the catalogue of a jewellery sale taking place at Edinburgh auction house Lyon & Turnbull. That is what's known as A Stroke of Luck.

Lyon & Turnbull are a responsible and widely respected firm of auctioneers. It is unclear why they accepted the stolen objects for sale, but it seems likely that whoever consigned them was what is often called "a good faith purchaser" — that is someone who at some point had bought them from someone else assuming that the "someone else" had good title to them (i.e. was legally entitled to sell).

What seems unclear is whether Lyon & Turnbull submit their catalogues to a company that conducts Due Diligence by cross-checking the catalogues against a database of stolen objects (a phone call to Lyon & Turnbull today asking if the firm submitted its catalogues for Due Diligence checking elicited a baffled response. "I don't even know what that is," said the spokesperson. "It means absolutely nothing to me.")

If Lyon & Turnbull do submit their catalogues for provenance checking (I want to assume they do), it seems it may not have been the same database with which the Duchess registered her stolen jewellery in 2006. Had it been, a match would have emerged and the auctioneers would have been alerted earlier in the process.

Still, at least the Duchess got her jewels back and didn't have to pay any associated fees to do so. After all, it was she who spotted them in the auction catalogue, rather than the database company with which she originally registered them as missing.

A happy ending, then. That calls for a large glass of the finest Argyll single malt. A Lagavulin will do nicely.

Running for cover — connoisseurs run shy of legal backlash

As most recent art authentication cases have conclusively demonstrated, it is lawyers who stand to win the most when people litigate over attributions of works of art.

Connoisseurs and artists' foundations used to be the high priests of expertise on whether a work was authentic or not. However, as a New York Times article has just reported, many experts are now too scared to express an opinion for fear of being slammed with a lawsuit. (See my earlier blog post on the disputed Degas bronzes here.) Some foundations are now even choosing not to publish catalogues raisonnés.

All of these trends are further illustrations of an art market out of control as more and more speculators, investors, fund managers, advisors and 'agents' (many with no art historical knowledge or aesthetic sensibility) pile in and pump up prices.  The more prices rise, the more there is to win...or lose...thereby feeding the gaping maw of the legal profession. America has long been one of the most litigious societies in the world, but there is plenty of evidence that the UK is now at risk of being sucked into that same grim culture.

If connoisseurs and foundations withdraw their opinions, this could have the positive effect of deterring profit-seeking speculators from playing in this market. Without the reassurance of connoisseurial expertise to guide them they are less likely to engage with a market in which they lack the knowledge and information that is critical to good decision making. That can only be a positive development, for it  marginally increases the possibility of us returning to the important values  — critical, aesthetic, and art historical considerations as opposed to predominantly economic preoccupations.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Art Loss Register and Jack Solomon facing lawsuit over their part in Norman Rockwell title dispute

Norman Rockwell, Russian Schoolroom
It took years, and cost her a fortune in legal fees, but in 2010, US art dealer Judy Goffman Cutler finally won title to the Norman Rockwell painting which she legitimately bought and rightfully owned but which had been challenged by the painting's former owner, Jack Solomon.

Solomon, who for a time pressed his claim with the support of the Art Loss Register (ALR), was eventually described by the presiding judge in the case as "not credible."

Now Mrs Cutler has filed an official complaint in Las Vegas Federal Court, suing Solomon, the Art Loss Register, and Christopher Marinello, executive director of the ALR, seeking "punitive damages for abuse of process and conspiracy."

The original case was a tangled web of claim and counter-claim, but at its heart was an attempt by Solomon to claim ownership of a painting for which he had already benefited financially on two previous occasions. Courthouse News Service, the California-based nationwide news service for lawyers and news media, reported on Thursday that Christopher Marinello of the Art Loss Register was listed as one of Solomon's attorneys in his original complaint. The Courthouse News article goes on to state: "But Marinello would later testify in a separate proceeding that he never was Solomon's attorney and that he agreed to add his name as the attorney of record in order to 'give it some kind of added cachet or publicity that the Art Loss Register, as an organization, was blessing [Solomon's] cause.'" Why a connection with the ALR could be assumed to "add cachet" has never been explained.

Solomon, a Missouri-based art dealer and Rockwell specialist, bought the painting — Russian Schoolroom, (above left) — in 1971 for $5,000. Two years later, he sold it through his Arts International gallery in Clayton, Missouri to Bert Elam, a collector, for $25,000. Elam agreed to leave the picture on temporary display at the gallery for the duration of a Rockwell exhibition. A few days later, on 24 June 1973, the painting was stolen from the gallery by persons unknown. Solomon and his gallery reimbursed Elam for the loss and made an insurance claim, which was duly compensated by the gallery's insurer, Chubb. 

In 1988, the painting resurfaced at Morton M. Goldberg Auction Rooms in New Orleans, consigned for sale by "a couple" whose identity has never been established. Solomon was contacted by the auctioneer and was sent a catalogue, the front cover of which showed a colour illustration of the painting. The auction was also widely advertised in the trade press, including a page in Antiques and the Arts Weekly in October 1988, in which the painting was illustrated (right).

Judy Goffman Cutler was also contacted by auctioneer Morton Goldberg, who was aware of her status as America's pre-eminent dealer in Norman Rockwell's work. Mrs Cutler has a New York gallery specialising in American illustration and is also co-founder, with her husband Laurence, of the National Museum of American Illustration in Newport, Rhode Island. Prior to the auction, Morton Goldberg requested Mrs Cutler's interest in Russian Schoolroom in a price range of $90,000-100,000. She politely declined it at that price level, but made an index card to take note of it, which she filed away.

Soon after, on seeing that the painting was coming under the hammer at Goldberg's 'Louisiana Purchase Auction,' where it was now estimated at $80,00-100,000, Mrs Cutler requested a catalogue for the sale (below left). She then began conducting her own extensive due diligence inquiries into the picture's provenance. Finally satisfied that it could legitimately be bought, Mrs Cutler bid for the picture and secured it at the sale on 29 October 1988 for $64,000 ($70,400 including auctioneer's fees).

Being the new proud owner of the painting, Mrs Cutler set about alerting the Rockwell collectors among her clients and advertising it for sale. What she was unaware of at this point, but which emerged in the subsequent court case, was that behind the scenes Solomon had cut a deal with Goldberg Auction Rooms prior to the sale. Despite having been paid out by his insurers in 1973, Solomon arranged with Goldberg that 10% of the auction proceeds would go to Goldberg, $20,000 would be paid to Chubb and that Solomon and the consignor would split the remaining proceeds 50/50. The identity of the consignor remains shrouded in mystery. What is also unclear is why the consignor — who must have acquired it in good faith — agreed to split the proceeds with Solomon, who had already been recompensed for the original theft and thus had no legitimate title to the painting. Unfortunately Goldberg Auction Rooms long ago went out of business and its records have vanished. Who consigned the painting to auction? How, and from whom, did they acquire it?

In September 1989, Mrs Cutler sold Russian Schoolroom to her long-time client, the film director Steven Spielberg, who is also an enthusiastic Rockwell collector. Nothing further emerged until 2004 when an unknown person alerted the FBI to the 1973 theft. The FBI staff were unaware at that time that the case had been effectively resolved in 1988 when Solomon consented to the auction. In 2007, one of Steven Spielberg's staff became aware that investigations were being conducted and contacted Judy Goffman Cutler.

Mrs Cutler then gave Steven Spielberg a Rockwell painting of comparable value and importance in order to remove him from the case and thereby save him the embarrassment. The Russian Schoolroom was placed into storage and Mrs Cutler and Solomon proceeded to argue their claims to title.

In April 2010, Judge Roger L. Hunt, presiding in the District Court for the District of Nevada, awarded title to Russian Schoolroom to Mrs Cutler.

Whether Mrs Cutler will succeed in her official complaint against Solomon and the ALR just filed in the Las Vegas Federal Court remains to be seen. However, one can understand how an honest art dealer who conducted extensive due diligence before acquiring a picture would seek recompense for the enormous sums subsequently expended in defending both her good title to the work in question and her reputation. At the very least the outcome of the case should act as a warning to all those who attach themselves to an illegitimate claim, either wilfully in order to acquire some prospective reward, or by failing to do their own due diligence into the parties involved.

As Julian Radcliffe, Chairman of the Art Loss Register himself commented recently with regard to another title dispute: "Anyone, including lawyers, who think that they can obtain rewards for the return of stolen art without providing full information on who had them and why, should be prosecuted."

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The 'blue-chip' auction: a stretch limo with tinted windows

They look chic and stylish and make those inside feel special. But like a stretch limousine with tinted windows, nobody really knows what's happening behind the scenes at today's high-end auctions of modern and contemporary art.

Veteran art market reporter Souren Melikian's New York Times account of the recent New York auctions of modern art alluded to a "disconnect in the art market" without explaining how that might have come about. Certainly the "hubristic buying" currently driving prices to such astronomical levels does make it seem as if today's art collectors are, as Melikian suggests, "living on a different planet."

One fact of which we are all aware is that the recession has had the effect of widening the gap between ultra high net worth individuals (i.e. those with investable assets worth more than $30m) and everyone else. As Dr Clare McAndrew pointed out in her art market report for the European Fine Art Fair, "In the US and other mature markets, the very rich lost relatively less in the crisis than the remainder of the population."

These are the people now pushing blue-chip modern and contemporary art to levels that no classical economic theory could even begin to rationalise.

But it's not just ultra high net worth investors looking to diversify their portfolios who are pumping this market. The exotic back-office instruments being constructed by auctioneers working hand-in-glove with third party investors is another contributing factor in accelerating the 'financialisation' of the art market.

Some recent reports of Christie's latest evening sale of Modern Art in New York were gushing about the "exceptional élan" of auctioneer Christopher Burge's rostrum style, lauding his patrician command of a roomful of millionaires hanging on his every word.

At one point, Burge refused to accept a bid of $100,000 for a Gerhard Richter canvas, insisting on minimum increments of $200,000 or more. "We've messed around long enough," he sneered, as he tried to squeeze another eye-watering amount of money from the room.

When an auctioneer refuses to accept a bid of that size it is not an indicator of his professional élan; it's an illustration of a gaping "disconnect" between the art market and conventional reality, not to mention a sign of breathtaking arrogance.

Where auction houses used to act as agent for the vendor, today they are often a principal in the transaction. This issue has been lurking in the background of fine art auctions since at least the late nineteenth century. Writing about the New York picture trade in 1888, Sheridan Ford wrote:
"An auction properly understood, is for the purpose of exposing goods at public sale for legitimate competition, the public being supposed to force prices in fair and open rivalry. If the auctioneer takes a position between the public and the seller calculated to prevent this, he betrays his trust."
High-ticket fine art auctions may sustain the illusion of legitimate competition and fair and open rivalry, but in reality they are engineered to disguise a complex machinery of back-room financial deals. It's extraordinary that the kind of practices that in any other market would be condemned as insider trading excite little if any comment in the art market.

During the sale of Munch's Scream in New York a few days ago, Sotheby's auctioneer Tobias Meyer told his ponderous, bid-taking colleagues on the telephones, "Don't worry; I have all the time in the world." Of course he had. In many cases, Christie's and Sotheby's know well beforehand who will be bidding and how much they will bid.

An auctioneer's refusal to accept a bid of $100,000 for a work of art may look cool to those in thrall to the art market, but it also shows staggering conceit. One senses that the big two auction houses never really learned their lesson from the price-fixing scandal. The art market is often described as the last unregulated market. It is also one of the last markets where vulgar egotism still wins admirers.

Earlier this week it was reported that the same sum Christie's declined — $100,000 — had been donated to Orange County Children's Hospital, funding a new 425,000 sq ft wing complete with 31 treatment rooms, three triage suites, cutting-edge operating rooms, a laboratory, and pathology and imaging services.

I'd suggest that whoever had their bid declined simply divert that trifling sum to another equally deserving cause.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Barnett Newman on the evolution of the 'zip'

The late British art critic David Sylvester considered Barnett Newman the most significant artist of the second half of the twentieth century. He later refined that judgement to describe him as the most important artist born in the twentieth century (Picasso and Matisse and many of their contemporaries were born in the late nineteenth century).

Here's Barney talking about how his famous 'zip' line was discovered:

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

An "appetite for risk" now a prerequisite for top museum jobs?

In appointing Dr Timothy Potts, currently director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, as the new director of the Getty Museum, James Cuno, President and CEO of the J.Paul Getty Trust, confirmed he had been seeking a director "with an appetite for risk."

Both Cuno and Potts have in recent years adopted robust approaches to acquiring antiquities that don't have a clear ownership history. In appointing Dr Potts to the job, Cuno is clearly building a team sympathetic to his own approach to problematic cultural objects.

KCRW radio has just run a revealing interview with Cuno about the appointment of Dr Potts. During the broadcast, which includes Jason Feltz, co-author of Chasing Aphrodite (which exposed the extent of the Getty's earlier abuse of international cultural heritage laws), Cuno is pressed on his own previously articulated opinions about acquisition, and his long-held assertion that most requests for repatriation of cultural objects are underpinned by "nationalist" agendas.

Listen to the interview here.

(My thanks to Kwame Opoku for drawing my attention to this item)

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Fancy a game of cards? The stake is $250 million

Cézanne's Card Players — an acknowledged masterpiece of post-Impressionist painting (left) — has demolished all previous art market records by selling to the Qatari royal family for a reported $250 million in a private treaty sale. The price reveals the extent to which the art market now occupies a parallel universe entirely out of synch with normal economic reality.

Cézanne's two rustic workmen are shown playing cards, but a game of dice might have been more appropriate for the price of this picture is the most graphic illustration to date of the random nature of art market pricing. (Where better to start on this than the American economist William Baumol's 1986 paper — 'Unnatural Value: Or Art Investment as Floating Crap Game', American Economic Review, 76, 1986, pp10-14).

Drawing on the classical economic theory of Adam Smith, Baumol was one of the first to explain how the art market lacks the mechanisms that govern other forms economic activity in which market prices for commodities are always propelled back towards a "natural price" by the equilibrating forces of supply and demand, etc. As a non-fungible asset, art does not respond to that gravitational pull, resulting in off-the-scale prices like the Qatari Cézanne purchase.

Wealth managers and investment advisors will be salivating at the news of this price for it reinforces the hypnotic illusion that art is not merely a safe store of value but an asset that can deliver staggering returns on investment.

And what of the broader cultural impact? There was a time when museums provided an environment in which to focus on the aesthetic attributes of a work of art without the white noise of commerce and controversy interfering in the contemplative process. But such is the hype around these astronomical prices that this version of Cézanne's Card Players is at risk — like the Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum — of being famous for all the wrong reasons: "Wow, this picture's worth a quarter of a billion dollars."

Arguably more interesting still is the influence this price could have on how European and North American museums manage their collections. Many of them are already wrestling with the dilemmas of deaccessioning certain objects — to sell or not to sell? The prospect of a single picture raising $300 million or more is very likely to lead some museum boards to countenance previously taboo solutions for fixing their balance sheets.

This picture came from the collection of the Greek shipping magnate George Embiricos. With many more equally important pictures still in private hands and the great maw of emerging market money opening ever wider, who is to say that other Greek shipping families won't decide to liquidate some assets. A price of $250 million may seem off the scale, but it will soon be surpassed.

A couple of years ago, during the toxic disputes swirling around the Barnes Foundation, New York dealer Richard Feigen was filmed speculating about the value of the Barnes Collection's own version of Cézanne's Card Players (Cézanne painted five variations of the theme). "Who knows what it could be worth?" he mused (I'm paraphrasing here). "A hundred million? Two hundred million? A billion dollars?"

Already there is speculation that the actual price for the Qatari Cézanne may have been well above the $250 million quoted, but a classic art market omertá has descended so we may never know.

Also worth noting here is the direction of flow. Like China, Qatar is now a huge magnet pulling in treasures from European and North American collections. When, or whether, this process will ever stop is impossible to say, but if the odious Assad regime finally falls in Syria and the social networking-driven contagion of unrest spreads to the bloated, oil-rich desert kingdoms, these oligarchies could tumble too and their powerful cultural magnets would quickly lose their gravitational pull.

It's well to remember that they're all built on sand.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Museums, Money, and Millionaire Artists: Welcome to the Pinchuk Future Generation Art Prize

If you were seeking confirmation of the creeping umbilical links between museums, art market money and celebrity culture, look no further than the Pinchuk Foundation's Future Generation Art Prize, the second edition of which has just been launched in a mind-numbingly boring "webcast" from the Pinchuk Art Centre in Kiev, broadcast to the world via the wonders of clunky digital technology.

This must surely rank as the most tedious and banal art conference ever staged, so if you're suffering from insomnia I recommend clicking your iPad to Future Generation Art Prize, which is still live on the web. The $100,000 accolade is bestowed every two years on an artist under the age of 35 by the Victor Pinchuk Foundation established by the eponymous Ukrainian entrepreneur and philanthropist.

Brought together to launch the second edition of the prize were Richard Armstrong, director of the Solomon Guggenheim Museum and Foundation, Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate, Cinthia Marcelle, winner of the first Future Generation Art Prize, and Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons, the Prize's two "Patron Artists", whatever that means.

After 30 minutes it was still unclear what the biennial prize intends to achieve other than to promote the Pinchuk Foundation and the Pinchuk Arts Centre in Kiev. The webcast discussion seemed preoccupied with the market, with prices, and with certain unnamed artists who had been magically transmogrified into "celebrities."

Otherwise things were as clear as mud. Serota looked embarrassed and mortally bored, although this may have been because web technology in London is not as advanced as it is in a wealthy market democracy like Ukraine.

Koons and Hirst, the world's leading manufacturers of luxury goods for billionaires, looked sheepish and confused, as if itching to get back to their production lines. Not even the inestimable Anna Somers Cocks, founding editor of The Art Newspaper, sitting resplendent in a fur hat (presumably in deference to her Ukrainiain hosts), could squeeze any sense out of the robotic participants.

The first winner of the Pinchuk Prize, Cinthia Marcelle, broadcasting from Brazil, was unable to articulate the benefits of winning the prize other than how it had enabled her to employ more people to make her art. Koons and Hirst seemed to nod and smile benignly, clearly empathising with this critical management issue.

Jeff Koons offered some obscure wisdom about "artists' vocabulary," but it was Hirst who cut to the chase. "You can't underestimate the importance of the cash prize," he said, referring to the generous $100,000 being dangled before thousands of hopeful applicants. "The money is the key," he said. Having raised £100 million in a single day's auction in October 2008, he should know.

Pinchuk himself, seated in front of a gigantic Koons sculpture, said, "This prize is mainly not about art; it is mainly about the future generation." He went on to explain how displaying Ukrainian artists in his foundation's arts centre had exerted an immediate impact on the art market. "Very soon their work appeared in the catalogues of auctions, the prices for their works became relatively high, and very soon contemporary art in Ukraine became very popular....and now Ukrainian artists are really like celebrities."

So there you have it — the directors of two of the world's leading art museums endorsing a prize, the central purpose of which is to grow the Ukrainian art market.

Culture, schmulture. Show me the money.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Greek Culture Minister rushes to deny Acropolis rental rumours

The source of the almost instantly viral rumour that the Greeks were considering renting out the Acropolis and other archaeological sites to help pay off the country's sovereign debt seems to have been a Conservative former Greek Minister — Gerasimos Giakoumatos.

‎"It's better to rent the Acropolis to private companies than to cut wages and pensions," Giakoumatos told the press. "Rent the Parthenon, the Delphi, the Temple of Apollo, Knossos and let the money flow into the public funds.” That recommendation, which had cultural heritage experts choking into their cornflakes, was endorsed by another Greek MP, Nea Dimokratia.

As Ton Cremers has just reported, Greek Minister of Culture and Tourism, Pavlos Yeroulanos, quickly took to his Twitter account to dispel claims that the Greek Government was considering such a course of action (@P_Yeroulanos).

Shame, as I was looking forward to renting the Temple of Hera at Olympia (above left) for a nice summer holiday with the kids. No roof or pool, but nice views of the surrounding countryside...