Market Monday: Off to the Side
This week, a parade of stories where the periphery is just as interesting as the main event...
James Tarmy and Vernon Silver chronicled the rise and fall of the Wildenstein art-dealing dynasty, from the founding of the family's first gallery in 1870s Paris all the way to its nearly $500 million back-tax bill from the French government today. The Dionysian details of this saga make it worth reading all on their own. (A 75,000-acre ranch in Kenya! Stealth airlifts of Old Masters to outfox investigators! A jilted ex-wife who underwent multiple plastic surgeries to maximize her resemblance to a cat, "Island of Dr. Moreau" style!) But intermixed with the salacious personal tidbits are a number of equally juicy morsels about the idiosyncrasies of the art market. My favorite is a paradox that Tarmy and Silver never explore. Although French authorities appraised the Wildenstein's (known) art assets at a minimum of roughly $1 billion, the family's colossal debt––one of the infamous Three D's, along with divorce and death––transforms every one of their holdings into a distressed asset. For Guy Wildenstein, the scion left holding the bag, public knowledge of his desperate need for cash virtually guarantees that any works made available from the family vaults will generate lowball offers only. If we zoom out, then, his dilemma crystallizes the grand irony of back-taxing a dealer or collector on the estimated value of his art: The moment a government official sends the bill, he insures that the works used to tabulate it will only be able to generate a fraction of their appraised worth––which makes it exponentially less likely that the government will ever manage to collect what the debtor owes. [Bloomberg]
In an understandable yet misguided attempt to turn back the tide of gentrification in their namesake Los Angeles neighborhood, the local activists in the Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement (BHAAAD) demanded this week that all galleries in the area "leave immediately" so that "the community" can "decide what takes their place." Boyle Heights has become a hothouse for contemporary galleries and nonprofit spaces in the past two years, with for-profit tenants now including high-profile names like Gavin Brown (356 Mission), Adam Lindemann (Venus Over Los Angeles), and Michele Maccarone. While BHAAAD is right to identify the visual arts as the tip of the gentrification spear, I'm afraid that the group is mistaking an effect for a cause here. In most cases, gallerists aren't actively colluding with developers to carry out nefarious widescreen plots to disenfranchise existing communities. They're just independently moving to wherever the real estate is A) still close enough to the city's established attractions not to scare off moneyed clients, and B) still affordable enough to secure enough space to actually do business. Even if every nascent arts entrepreneur in Boyle Heights bowed to BHAAAD's demands this instant, control of the real estate wouldn't transfer to the activists anyway. It would transfer back to the developers, who would then just rent the same spaces out to farm-to-table brunch spots, boho chic boutiques, and every other hallmark business of a major city's "next" neighborhood. All of which makes trying to stop gentrification by kicking out the first few galleries something like trying to stop the aging process by scalping yourself once you notice the first few gray hairs––and that's a socioeconomic reality that every activist group would prefer to sideline. [LA Weekly]
On Tuesday, the long arm of the law reached even closer to dealer and freeport mogul Yves Bouvier, after new evidence compelled a special division of the French Interior Ministry to resume a criminal investigation of his associate Olivier Thomas. Catherine Hutin-Blay, Pablo Picasso's stepdaughter, accused Thomas last year of seizing and selling three works from her collection without her permission: a Rembrandt and two portraits of her mother painted by her late stepfather. Though he swears ignorance of any wrongdoing on Thomas's part, Bouvier later sold the two Picassos in question for a combined 27M Euro to Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev, the man now suing Bouvier in multiple countries for allegedly price-gouging him on this and roughly 35 other sales. While Thomas originally claimed never to have seen Hutin-Blay's Picasso portraits, investigators discovered digital photos of both pieces on his laptop this week. It's easy to focus on why this is such grim news for Thomas and, by extension, Bouvier. But I think it's more interesting to consider how differently this investigation might be playing out if Rybolovlev had never come to believe that he had drastically overpaid for Hutin-Blay's Picassos––and might therefore have more incentive to try to keep them than to (potentially) earn a legally mandated refund by cooperating with French authorities. I suspect the wheels of justice may have encountered much more friction in that scenario than this one, which now feels like a fait accompli. But of course we'll never know... [artnet News]
Finally this week: Richard Prince reaffirmed his status as troll-king of the art industry by announcing a dual project liable to send art purists on a kill-crazy rampage straight out of "Reefer Madness." Prince will art-direct the September issue of pot-culture periodical High Times while simultaneously rolling out (or rolling up) a weed-themed exhibition at Blum & Poe's Los Angeles headquarters. The exhibition will reportedly feature a "curated" array of High Times covers from 1974 to 2014, selected works from Prince's "Hippie Drawings" series, and even a "custom marijuana strain" designed by the artist. While it's easy to get lost in Prince's shock-jock antics, his impulses are less meaningful to the state of the industry than Blum & Poe's eagerness to indulge them. With Prince still a free agent after ashing his relationship with Gagosian last month, his name is valuable enough to convince every high-end gallery he pitches to do whatever he wants in hopes of signing him long-term, whether that means hosting this over-the-top homage to hydroponics, stamping the gallery's logo on street-ready packets of black-tar heroin, or turning their entire exhibition space into a functioning meth lab. Welcome to the era of the branded artist––high times for top talent, indeed. [Page Six]
That's all for this edition. Til next time, don't lose sight of the action on the fringes.