Market Monday: Professionally Unprofessional
This week, a sweaty envelope full of snapshots revealing just how far away from respectability the industry still is...
In a match manufactured by some kind of trans-media lightning rod factory, Alec "You Are a Rude, Thoughtless Pig" Baldwin accused Mary "Smacks of Extortion" Boone of selling him a $190,000 alternate version of Ross Bleckner's "Sea and Mirror" (1996), under the pretense that it was in fact the original painting that Baldwin has been chasing like Ahab on the prow of the Pequod for the past decade. Through her attorney, Boone denies any wrongdoing, asserting that Baldwin "should not have misunderstood what he purchased" by the time the money changed hands and the painting was delivered. Baldwin disputes Boone's version of events, while also making clear that he places the blame for the alleged deception fully on her rather than on Bleckner. (In a memorable email exchange quoted in Graham Bowley's story, Baldwin calls her "an armadillo" who he's sure has "been blasting [her] way out of corners like this on more than one occasion"––an accusation that triggers the triumphantly surreal experience of reading Mary Boone, one of the most storied American gallerists of the contemporary era, retort in total seriousness, "I am not however an armadillo.") After being informed criminal charges were not an option, Baldwin has so far refused to open any formal civil action against Boone, either. And as much as I would love for him to eventually take the witness stand purely for the quotes, my guess is that, even if a complaint is eventually filed, this matter (like so many similar others in the art industry) will ultimately be settled out of court. Whatever happens next, though, the saga already provides another example of why official internal regulation remains the industry's white whale: Its most powerful players are still just as susceptible to the "greed is good" ethos as any Wall Street tycoon––and greed, like bacteria, always flourishes best in the dark. [The New York Times]
Speaking of grabbing for money from inside an ethical sand trap, closing arguments concluded on Tuesday in the preposterous civil trial against revered artist and walking auction aphrodisiac Peter Doig. As a refresher, the case revolves around the disputed authorship of a mysterious 1976 landscape painting signed "Pete Doige 76" (yes, that's "Pete" with no "r" and "Doige" with an added "e"). Doig, i.e. the positively identified Scotsman whose work was bid up to $26M at Christie's last year, denies that the painting in question is his. Contending otherwise are a retired Ontarian corrections officer and Chicago dealer Peter Bartlow, a man whose record is so spotty that Richard Prince momentarily dropped his non-sequitur-laced Twitter of the Sphinx routine to call out Bartlow in plain language as a "bottom feeder." Based on what I've seen, it's a Reptilians-level farce that Judge Gary Feinerman even allowed this suit to reach the trial phase. And perhaps no detail captures this as well as the fact that the plaintiffs have requested $100,000 in damages even if the judge rules that Doig had no hand in creating the painting. Why? Because Bartlow was able to find an appraiser who believes (see: was willing to accept money to pretend) that the piece is still worth that amount regardless of its origin, and that Doig's "interference" has essentially made this disembodied six-figure masterwork unsellable. I'm already on record arguing that legitimate authentication technology would be a boon for the industry, whether or not the artist is still alive to confirm authorship. But if Judge Feinerman rules that Doig owes so much as a Canadian nickel to Bartlow and his co-plaintiff after swearing under oath that this is not his work––let alone mounting what sounds like a sane and thorough legal defense––the only good that could come out of this debacle would be a newfound urgency within the for-profit sector for funding and adopting anti-forgery innovations. Because if the artist's word is no longer good enough, what else do we have? [artnet News]
Meanwhile, in the New York legal system, Italian Renaissance dealer Fabrizio Moretti (not to be confused with the former Drew Barrymore paramour and Strokes drummer of the same name) filed an amended complaint against David Zwirner on Wednesday, expanding on his previous accusation that the mega-gallerist failed to deliver him an unnamed $2M artwork even after Moretti paid in full. The new paperwork is important for two reasons: One, it reveals the piece in question to be Jeff Koons's "Gazing Ball (Centaur and Lapith Maiden)" (2013); and two, it nearly triples the amount of damages sought, from a refund of the $2M purchase price plus fees to a cool $6M. A spokesman for Zwirner, who filed a motion to dismiss Moretti's suit a few days prior, argues that the Italian dealer is "using the court system as a negotiating tactic," essentially hoping to find a litigation-shaped escape hatch from an acquisition in which, to quote one of Moretti's emails, Moretti simply "lost interest." While it certainly sounds as though there may have been some shenanigans on Zwirner and Koons's part, including alleged post-purchase changes to the sculpture's dimensions and editioning, the accusations against Moretti speak to a more common yet less publicly known trend in the art trade. Potential buyers back out of deals all the time, in both the primary and secondary markets, often without ever paying a dime. Yet the average art lover rarely sees these deadbeat collectors' and dealers' names in the press, because it's cheaper, swifter, and more effective for insiders to quietly mete out justice through the use of black lists and intra-industry gossip. Remember, nothing is more valuable (or more vulnerable) in this realm than your reputation. But as long as most major figures continue to prefer genteel vigilante tactics to clearly enforceable contracts, the art market will stay stuck in business adolescence. [The Art Newspaper]
Robin Pogrebin profiled Japanese contemporary ceramics collector Steven Korff, whose 20-year obsession with the medium has quietly made him an international luminary in this niche-within-a-niche. On some level, it's heartening to read about an aficionado clearly invested for the love rather than the socioeconomic returns. (With high-value ceramic works perched on every available surface and a closet full of wooden boxes signed by the artists, Korff's house sounds about as philosophically distant from either a transaction-minded holding facility or a lavish private museum as Teach for America is from Goldman Sachs.) Yet, it's also fitting that some of the details surrounding his collection lead back to the ad-hoc nature of the art market at all levels. Even though I just took target practice on the inherent absurdities of art valuation a couple weeks back, Pogrebin tosses up another clay pigeon when she writes that Korff's collection "is now worth from $500,000 to $800,000." Rounding just a bit, how big a margin of error does that $300,000 spread equate to? 40-60 percent! As readers in the industry know, similar canyons yawn open between auction lots' low and high estimates in almost every reputable sale. And when alleged experts can basically only get within a coin toss while assessing value, the only safe bet is that the underlying business stands on questionable financial ground. [The New York Times]
Finally, with two years of hindsight in her medical bag, Peggy McGlone delivered a thorough (and thoroughly maddening) autopsy report on the dismemberment of Washington, DC's Corcoran Gallery of Art and its College of Art & Design. As a reminder, a colossal budget crisis forced the institution––the District's oldest private museum at the time––to take drastic measures in 2014 to try to save itself from oblivion. But "salvation" looks like a dubious label for the outcome the Corcoran's decision-makers chose: a three-way partnership with the National Gallery of Art and George Washington University, in which the NGA ultimately absorbed nearly half of the Corcoran's 17,000-piece collection for free, and in which GWU received "almost $50M... in cash, investments, and property"––including the Corcoran's two historic buildings––with another $7.4M in assets still due. What did the Corcoran get? Well, its trustees are allowed "to continue to exist as a nonprofit corporation." So that's nice for their tax returns. And while plenty of particles in this story tickled my gag reflex, I'm chiefly appalled by how the US's economically ludicrous museum standards factored in. Whether their fear was authentic or simply a smoke screen for what sounds suspiciously like an inside job, the trustees reportedly opted for this plan partly because they knew they could not sell any of the Corcoran's assets to raise money for operating expenses without being institutionally waterboarded by both the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and (although McGlone doesn't mention it) the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD). For the uninitiated, the sacred standards of these organizations decree that museum holdings can only be placed on the market to fund new acquisitions, not grubby terrestrial line items like, you know, staying solvent. Case in point: The AAM excommunicated the Delaware Art Museum in 2014 for selling select works from its collection to pay construction debts on a major architectural expansion, while the AAMD imposed major sanctions for the same supposed offense. But as Delaware's chief executive points out to McGlone, the DAM survived its exile and is now thriving. The Corcoran, on the other hand, effectively reduced itself to a zombie institution willingly serving up its limbs to scavengers. All of which underscores the American nonprofit sector's illogical orthodoxy on de-accessioning: Preserving the supposed sanctity of a museum's collection is meaningless if the institution has to die for the cause. And if you ask me, it's far more barbaric to give the public an honor killing than a museum where art and business are allowed to sensibly mix. [The Washington Post]
That's all for this edition. Til next time, remember that if you can't keep what you're up to above board, you'd better lock it so deep in the dungeon that it can never, ever get out.