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.