Tuesday, January 5, 2016

More on the case of David Joel's disputed Monet: A French court decides

Further to my past postings on the case of the Monet (left) owned by British art collector David Joel (see links  at the foot of this post), which was the subject of a 2011 BBC Fake or Fortune documentary, I have just received an email from a French law firm.

In recent years Mr Joel has sought, through litigation in the French courts, to overturn the decision by the Wildenstein Institute's Monet Committee to exclude the painting, Les bords de la Seine à Argentueilfrom the Monet catalogue raisonné, an exclusion originally made by the late Daniel Wildenstein. As many people are aware, exclusion from the catalogue raisonné generally amounts to a death sentence on a painting.

The letter from Clément Reyne of French law firm TILDER reads as follows:

Dear Sir, 
As you wrote on the subject, I think this information may interest you:

During the Fake or Fortune programme on the BBC of 19 June 2011, Fiona Bruce and Anthony Mould (sic), claimed that a riverscape entitled La Seine à Argenteuil belonging to David Joel was incorrectly omitted from the two editions of the Monet catalogue raisonné by Daniel Wildenstein and that the Wildenstein Monet Committee in Paris was obstinately refusing to nullify the late author’s decision not to include it in the corpus of works he believed to be by the master himself and not by a forger or imitator.

In recent years, David Joel brought lawsuits in the French courts to force the Wildenstein Institute to nullify Daniel Wildenstein’s decision to exclude the painting and to declare it authentic. The rulings, including the most recent, which is definitive, were not in Daniel Joel's favour. (sic)

I am enclosing the ruling of the Appeals Court which was rendered on 15 December 2015. 

Yours sincerely, 

Clément REYNE
28, rue Bayard 75008 PARIS

For some of us, the question still remains as to whether the Institute's determination to exclude this work is motivated by the embarrassment that would be caused by reversing a firm decision made years ago by the late Daniel Wildenstein (1917-2001), once described by Vanity Fair as "the richest and most powerful art dealer on earth." There are few if any precedents for the family revising previously articulated positions, but plenty of evidence that they will do almost anything to reinforce them.

The Wildenstein sons have always gone to great lengths to defend their forebears. The Vanity Fair article revealed how Alec Wildenstein : "...tries to defend his grandfather and father [Georges and Daniel] with their version of events. In fact, friends say that this is the story of Alec’s life—doing what Daniel tells him to." Another associate of the family goes further: "'In some ways it is very difficult for them to think that they are wrong' [...] 'It is about winning,' says one art expert. 'Daniel has to win.'"

It may seem a minor detail, but nor is one inspired by the typographical errors in the court judgement, which at one point states: "...il n'est pas indifférent de relever que dés 1892, interrogé par la maison de vente Christie's David Wildenstein (sic) avait refusé de considérer l'oeuvre comme un authentique de Claude Monet et de le mentionner dans le catalogue raisonné de Claude Monet." We assume they mean Daniel Wildenstein.

One thing that has emerged from the court case is that we now know who sits on (or at any rate is consulted by) the all-powerful Monet Committee for the Wildenstein Institute in making its judgements. According to the court papers, the Committee that pronounced the Joel painting as inauthentic (thereby forcing Mr Joel to pay an "indemnity" of €10,000 to Guy Wildenstein and the Wildenstein Institute!) draws on the expertise of, inter alia, Joachim Pissarro (grandson of the Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro); New York-based art historian and former museum curator Charles F. Stuckey; and Professor Richard Brettell of the University of Texas at Dallas. These gentlemen have all thus denied the relevance of the forensic science and the compelling provenance evidence revealed by the BBC documentary, to say nothing of contradicting the disinterested endorsement of other leading scholarly Monet authorities, including the late Professor John House of the Courtauld Institute of Art in London and Professor Paul Hayes Tucker of the University of Massachusetts at Boston, to name just two.

Does Daniel continue to rule the dynasty, even from beyond the grave?

Artknows Archive on this topic:

Followers of the Wildenstein family may also be interested in the following links:

Wildenstein Trial to Lift a Veil on Opaque Art World Dealings (New York Times International, 21 December 2015)

Wildenstein Gallery is beset by lawsuits (New York Times, April 2011)

Art Dealer Guy Wildenstein Caught Up In €600 Million Tax Evasion Case (Artnet News, 18 September 2014)

Bitter Spoils (Vanity Fair, 28 February, 1998)

Thursday, October 8, 2015

It’s National Poetry Day: An Art Lawyer Speaks

"The art trade's nearing its demise;
money-laundering is on the rise.
Yet fakes and forgeries are far worse,
they’re every dealer’s nightmare curse.
We lawyers’ love them, though.
Just think of all that lovely dough!
The Knoedler case soon goes to trial.
Many months of writ and bile,
a gravy train awash with loot,
I’ll buy a new Armani suit
in which to shimmy to the bench
and say in German, Dutch or French:
'My client’s innocent, M’Lord
of anything so untoward!
She’s honest, ethical and clean
and bought the Rothko sight unseen.
The Motherwell looked fine as well.
The Clyfford Still seemed mighty swell
When viewed upon a MacBook Air
through Raybans to reduce the glare.
Absolve her of the charge, I beg.
We’re sitting on a powder keg,
for if she swings the trade could wilt
and all the galleries they built
would lie abandoned ruined, broke.
Imagine all those arty folk,
Sleeping rough and begging dimes
and dreaming of the happy times
when dodgy Pollocks could be sold
to hedge fund dupes with piles of gold.' 

Steve Martin knows the risks you run
in buying paintings just for fun.
He found himself a million light
when someone saw Titanium White
hiding in his German paint 
(it was enough to make him faint.)

Do dealers learn from their mistakes?
Of course they don’t, the wily snakes!
If they could fit her in a crate,
they’d sell their granny to the Tate.

Where there’s a dollar to be earned, 
who cares whose fingers might get burned?
And what of Bouvier, the Freeport dude?
He’ll need me too if he gets sued!
He’s up against a potash tsar
(that case could buy me a new car.)
The lawyers’s code for art and sin? 
Heads you lose, and tails we win."


More art doggerel here:
Lines on the Goulandris Family art feud

Sunday, August 23, 2015

"A speech made without notes" — British Museum director gets defensive over the Universal Museum

While clearing out a few old VHS recordings in my diminutive archive, I stumbled upon an episode of the BBC's Newsnight programme in which their erstwhile culture correspondent Madeleine Holt interviewed British Museum director Neil McGregor about his position on the Universal Museum. (video below)

Those familiar with the debates surrounding the Universal Museum will be aware that a central tenet of the British Museum's position on the contested cultural objects in its collections is that only in London can the "big" stories about these objects be properly told.

This crypto-colonialist ideology (we can no longer appropriate and control other lands and other people, but at least we can control the stories of the objects we appropriated) is coming under increasing pressure. The world's 'universal' or 'encyclopaedic' museums are being challenged by a new, global demos calling for a more equitable and ethical approach to the sharing of material culture. The British Museum is way behind public thinking on this issue and needs to get with the programme.

"The world would be impoverished," says McGregor, "if we couldn't tell the big story in some places and it can only be told in some places."

Let's not dwell on the all-important and presumptuous "we" in that sentence, but note that the "big story" can only be told "in some places." Where? Lagos? Cairo? Phnom Penh? No, stupid! Bloomsbury. Only in Bloomsbury can the "BIG" story, the DEEPER story, the RICHER story, be told...and listened to.

When challenged on having (apparently inadvertently) phrased his museum's position in rather too imperialistic tones, McGregor bites back: "No, I'm not prepared to be critici....it was a speech made without notes."

It is when we speak without notes that we say what we really mean.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Let’s hear it for the British Museum — the greatest and most universal of all Universal Museums!

I have just had a Damascus moment. The scales have fallen from my eyes. I have seen the light. The British Museum (left) is unquestionably the greatest cultural institution on earth. We all know this, but how many of us fully appreciate it until we cross the threshold and enter its beautiful, spacious and subtly illuminated galleries containing a multitude of numinous art and artefacts representing the zenith of human creativity. 

What few people realise is that the multitude of objects that make up the British Museum’s collections (which date from darkest antiquity to the present day), can only be properly appreciated in this context, in this very museum, right here in Bloomsbury, London. 

Take, for example, the colossal Assyrian winged bulls (right), the beauty and power of which can only be fully comprehended when juxtaposed with an excruciatingly poetic marble nude from the High Classical period of ancient Greece. Similarly, how could we possibly assimilate into our enfeebled twenty-first century minds the grace and charm of the Greek contrapposto without seeing it in proximity to the stiffly marching figures of Ancient Egypt in the adjacent gallery? These objects speak to each other, and to us, with startling lucidity.

Such contrasts and comparisons are not postulated without careful cogitation, you understand. They have been arrived at after decades, nay centuries, of astute art historical and archaeological research and assiduous curatorship on the part of generations of British Museum employees. They, and only they, are in a position to enlighten us all on the evolution of human culture and we are eternally in their debt for blessing us with their insight and aesthetic wisdom. How else would these seemingly haphazard accumulations of objects and artefacts, relics and offcuts, fragments and shards, architectural odds and sods, and other decontextualised bricolage speak to us? They would be just that — so much mute and meaningless bric-a-brac.

This was brought home to me a few weeks ago while reading an article by the Guardian’s esteemed art critic, Jonathan Jones, about the British Museum’s exhibition ‘Defining Beauty’ devoted to the body in sculpture. Rendered in his usual lapidary prose, it sought to persuade us (and persuade me he did!) that the Greeks are an ungenerous, mean and philistine people. I shall never go on holiday to Crete again.

After his tour of the exhibition, Mr Jones was offered a rare and privileged audience with the British Museum’s internationally acclaimed director Neil McGregor, who is shortly to depart the great Bloomsbury edifice for the Humboldt Forum in Berlin. (London’s loss is surely Germany’s gain!) 

Mr Jones clearly emerged from his intimate tȇte-à-tȇte a new man. It seems he too had suddenly grasped the real value of this extraordinary institution, namely that none of the objects contained therein would mean anything at all if experienced anywhere else in the world, even in their countries of origin. Only here, in Bloomsbury, do they assume their true significance; only here can their inner light shine forth and ennoble us. 

Quiet why this revelation had previously escaped me I am now set to pondering. What kind of museological magic brings this about? Humble cultural tourist that I am, I cannot divine the answer, but the sheer force of the curatorial flourish is breathtaking. Go visit! You will see what I mean.

I now recognise Lord Elgin’s careful and archaeologically sensitive excision of the Parthenon Marbles (left) from the Acropolis monument in Athens in the early nineteenth century for what it truly was — a gesture of magnificent generosity, not only to the British people but to all of humanity. Indeed it is none other than Lord Elgin whom we must embrace and whose memory we should honour in perpetuity for bestowing on us the jewels in the British Museum’s crown. And don’t they look lovely after a little light abrasive cleaning with a harmless wire brush? Canova would have felt a tremor in his toga on seeing the pristine whiteness of the London sculptures compared with the traffic-tainted, soot-blackened monstrosities in Athens. 

To remove the London Marbles to any other location in the world would be an act of mindless vandalism. Not only would it create a gaping, castrating lacuna in the British Museum itself, it would also render every other object in the museum’s collections utterly meaningless, since a cornerstone of our understanding of human history and culture would have been cruelly wrenched away. 

Moreover, while they are safely ensconced in the majestic splendour of the Duveen Galleries, the Marbles effectively render their sister pieces in the New Acropolis Museum in Athens (right) largely irrelevant and a mere cultural sideshow of negligible historical interest. This is good. After all, without the great contribution of the Persians, Assyrians and Egyptians displayed in the adjoining galleries in London, what could the Parthenon Marbles possibly mean in Athens? Greek museums cannot offer such superlative comparisons and thus will always remain of merely parochial interest. 

Apart from enlightening us as to the greatness and beneficence of the British Empire’s noble colonial past (which the British Museum so eloquently symbolises), we ought not to forget its other important founding function — namely its duty to continue collecting for future generations. 

So let us get behind the British Museum and help it in its heroic quest to provide a safe haven for the cultural treasures arriving in the west by the lorry-load from the ravaged lands of the Middle East. If the British Museum were to build a partnership with ISIS along similar lines to those it has forged with the desert kingdoms of Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Qatar, a safe home could be provided for the multitude of cultural treasures currently being ripped wholesale from the ancient temples and sites of Iraq and Syria. After all, these objects will anyway be rendered meaningless if seen anywhere else in the world other than in the British Museum, just as the museum’s existing collections cannot be properly understood outside Bloomsbury. This is the power of the Universal Museum bequeathed to us by our Enlightenment forefathers.

And so to summarise, please join me in celebrating the true function of the British Museum — to bring light where there is darkness, to foster understanding where there is ignorance, to protect and conserve where others destroy, to explain where others seek to obfuscate, and to celebrate the glorious imperial past of this sceptered isle where no material object or artefact has any meaning or significance unless it is enshrined within the British Museum.

(This is terrific. Could you give me 1,000 words in a similar vein on the BBC? — Ed)     

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Russian billionaire must pay U.S. sculptor $640,000 for copyright infringement, court rules

Russian billionaire property developer Igor Olenicoff (left) has been instructed to pay American sculptor John Raimondi $640,000 in damages after being found guilty of having ordered and displayed unauthorised copies of Raimondi’s work.

The latest outcome of the Olenicoff saga was reported in The Observer here. It follows an earlier judgement awarded against Olenicoff for having infringed the copyright of another U.S. sculptor, Don Wakefield, whose work was also copied by Chinese artists working on the cheap at Olenicoff’s behest.

Wakefield was awarded $450,000 (see my report on that judgement here). 

This story first came to light back in 2011 when Wakefield contacted me to tell me how he had discovered copies of his work in the grounds of various buildings in Newport Beach, California owned by Olen Properties Corp, Olenicoff’s company. 

I reported on Wakefield’s complaint in an article in The Art Newspaper in 2011, but some of  The Art Newspaper’s content is now filtered by a ‘robot.txt’ file, which means the coverage is currently inaccessible. 

In October 2014, The Art Newspaper was sold to Inna Bazhenova (right), a Russian businesswoman who has vowed to honour the paper's long tradition of rigorous and ethical journalistic impartiality.

The story of Olenicoff’s abuse of the moral rights of the artist is now in the public domain and the billionaire tax felon and cheat will be forced to recompense the artists. That’s a small victory of sorts.

The Art Newspaper mentions the Olenicoff case in a story here about Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate, a copy of which has been installed in the town of Karamay in north-east China. A representative for the Karamay local authority is quoted as saying in their defence, "You can't say we're not allowed to build a round sculpture because there already is one." 

As part of my original investigation into the Olenicoff case I discovered a number of Beijing stone-carving companies who were prepared to copy sculptures based on images provided  by me without asking whether I had good title to the original works in question. Nor did they inquire as to who created the works. 

Moreover, where a unique, original work by Wakefield would have cost around $35,000 to make at that time (or closer to $100,000 today) and which would have retailed at $150,000, the Chinese stone-carvers were willing to produce them for between $900-$1,500 apiece. Whether this enabled Olenicoff to save on his Percent for Art obligations has never been fully clarified.

The full narrative of the original Olenicoff copyright case is available in various posts on the Artknows blog on the links below:

Both Wakefield and Raimondi were represented by attorneys Gene Brockland of Herzog Crebs, St. Louis, Missouri and Mike Kuznetsky of Kuznetsky Law Group, Los Angeles.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Qatar buys a Gauguin for $300 million: So have the angels left the building?

Nafea Faa Ipoipo
(When Will You Marry?), 1892
The painting by Paul Gauguin (left) has just sold, we are told, for a price rumoured to be $300 million (it could be more). The buyer is almost certainly the Qatar Museums Authority (who else would be able to dig so deep?). I say “rumoured”, because like the $250 million Cézanne, also recently dispatched into the Al Thani desert kingdom, the exact price paid for Gauguin’s Nafea Faa Ipoipo is being kept under wraps. 

You might reasonably ask why all the secrecy, given that half a billion dollars is already a stupefying sum of money to pay for two paintings, no matter who painted them. Perhaps the real price was much higher, indeed so high that confidentiality was the surest way to avoid the contumely that such prices inevitably invite.

Half a billion dollars for two paintings. If you were in any doubt about what, precisely, has turned the upper echelons of the art market into a sinister club controlled by money-laundering gangsters, tax-evading oligarchs, slave-driving Arab potentates and cynical ‘art consultants’, look no further than Qatar, a country the size of Jamaica, whose 264,000 inhabitants, made Croesus-rich by bottomless reserves of liquefied petroleum, outnumber by 4.5 to 1 the foreign labourers imported to build the country’s 2022 World Cup stadiums. 

But “foreign labourers” doesn’t quite cut it given that their employment conditions could be more accurately described as modern day slavery.  

And there you have it, the likely real reason why the vendor of the Gauguin, the retired Basel-based Sotheby's executive Rudolf Staechelin, sheepishly declined to confirm whether the Qataris were the buyers of his Gauguin: "I don't deny it and I don't confirm it,” was his gnomic response to the New York Times inquiry. 

The Al Thani dynasty who rule Qatar have not had a happy time of late, losing Sheikh Saud bin Mohammed Al-Thani to a fatal heart condition and rumours abounding of unpaid bills for art and other blue-chip collectibles. Now it seems the Al Thani art machine may be insisting on vendor confidentiality clauses whenever another high-ticket work is added to the national collection. With Filipino housemaids being denied their fundamental human rights and Nepalese construction workers dying at a rate of almost one a day to build the country’s World Cup infrastructure, is it any surprise that the rulers of this slave-state are reluctant to disclose the details of their multi-million dollar art acquisitions? 

Perhaps the Qatari Cultural Authority foresees hordes of soccer-loving visitors taking time out between matches in the air-conditioned stadiums at the 2022 World Cup finals to gaze at the Post-Impressionist masterpieces in the country’s shiny new art galleries. But how could you properly appreciate a painting while a quarter-of-a-billion-dollar price tag is blurring your visual cortex? Moreover, how many people died to build these stately pleasure-domes packed with pictures? The Guardian tells us that the World Cup construction project alone “will leave 4,000 migrant workers dead.” Cultural Authority? I have a better word for it. 

And what of the religious implications of the recent acquisitions? According to the CIA Fact Book, 77.5% of Qatar’s population is Muslim, most of whom, we can thus assume, hold to the words of the prophet, one of whose most widely attributed sayings is the bald statement: "Angels do not enter a house in which there is a dog or a picture.” 

Clearly the ‘picture’ part of that prohibition has been relaxed to make way for Cézanne’s Card Players and Gauguin’s When Will You Marry? Fortunately neither painting includes the image of a dog. So in the unlikely event they will ever come onto the open market, we can assume that Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Marriage Portrait, Titian’s Portrait of Charles V, and any number of Lucian Freuds will never be granted entry into the Qatar Museum, or not while the angels are in residence.  

The contradictions don’t stop there. Another recent work to disappear into the gaping maw of Qatar’s so-called cultural programme — Damien Hirst’s string of 14 monster foetuses, entitled The Miraculous Journey, said to have cost somewhere between $20-40 million (but what does it matter?) have already upset the more traditional sections of the Qatari community who find the naked human form offensive. 

Sheikha al Mayassa Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, chair of the Qatar Museums Authority, which commissioned the Hirst work, made valiant efforts to bridge the gulf between local sensibilities and the more pressing imperative to acquire an example of what all the super-rich feel obliged to own. “There is a verse in the Koran about the miracle of birth,” she was quoted as saying. “It is not against our culture or our religion.” However, it now seems she was fighting a losing battle, for the Hirst monstrosities were soon quietly shrouded with tarpaulins and are rumoured to be en route to a more discreet location away from the sensitive gaze of the locals. Not such a miraculous journey, after all. Hirst v Koran? Koran wins on points.

What will be the next picture to enter the Land of Prohibited Pictures? It’s a safe bet that with billions of dollars waiting to snap up the finest works, collectors will be eyeing up their masterpieces and waiting for the phone to ring. 

Monday, October 27, 2014

Caravaggio? Surely not...

If this is indeed an authentic, lost work by Caravaggio, as Mina Gregori, one of the world's leading authorities on the painter, is claiming, then we need to revise what we know about the artist and lower our standards accordingly. And that is unthinkable.

Look at the badly drawn left forearm, the clumsy fingers, the uncertain physiognomy. It's a ham-fisted composition that Caravaggio would have been incapable of painting.

Documents connecting the work to Cardinal Scipione Borghese, which are being taken in support of the attribution, ought not to be allowed to persuade us otherwise.

The family who own the painting have expressed no desire to sell it. Even were they to change their minds there would need to be a near consensus among Caravaggio scholars for the work to realise what an autograph work by the artist would command. Such a consensus seems highly unlikely.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Why it’s right to repatriate certain museum artefacts: a response to James Cuno

The position of James Cuno on the status of art and artefacts in the world’s ‘encyclopaedic’ museums will be familiar to anyone who has followed the culture wars raging between museums and so-called ‘source nations’ in recent years. 

Mr Cuno has just issued another typically muscular broadside from the comfort of his presidential office at the J. Paul Getty Trust. Most of it is wearily familiar — it’s what you might call Fiat Cuno Mark II. His most recent article was published by ‘Foreign Affairs’, the journal of the Council of Foreign Relations, which might suggest that western museums and their collections have moved from being little more than a conversational amuse-bouche to be rolled around the tongue at posh Washington dinner parties, to a more meaty issue at the heart of American foreign policy.

This is particularly telling when one considers the deep structural damage done to ancient cultural heritage as a consequence of American and coalition interventions into the Middle East in recent decades. The widespread looting and illicit trade in archaeological objects that became a bi-product of those catastrophic military adventures are now reaching an even more critical level. Research has shown that the looting of archaeological sites and the movement of cultural objects onto world markets is now helping to fund ISIL’s advances in northern Iraq and Syria.  
Against this backdrop, it is more than a little alarming to hear the president and CEO of one of the most important cultural institutions in North America arguing against the repatriation of material culture from encyclopaedic museums. One would think the President of the Getty Trust would know better than to pronounce on this topic when the Getty Museum has itself been implicated in one of the most controversial cases of illicit trade. 

In a nutshell, Cuno’s position comes down to this: those nations and communities around the world who are calling for the repatriation of the cultural objects taken from them in past eras and which now adorn western universal museums are motivated by a pernicious strain of nationalism that threatens to denude the Louvre, in Paris; the British Museum, in London; the Metropolitan Museum, in New York, and other institutions that are the great legacy of the European Enlightenment. One could nuance his argument further, but there is no need: like all blunt instruments it is hoped that if struck home repeatedly and with sufficient force it will do the job.

Cuno is the author and editor of a number of books of polemical essays designed to shore up what he sees as the increasingly beleaguered edifice of the universal museum. The frequency of his publications and their tone of barely disguised irritation says much about the fear of loss that has become a leitmotif of modern museological discourse. (For a discussion of the genealogy of this particular strain of fear see my recently published essay, ‘Fear of Cultural Objects’, in Sandis, C. (Ed.) Cultural Heritage Ethics (Open Book Publishers, 2014). 

How real is the threat of loss so frequently invoked by leading museum directors like James Cuno? Are western encyclopaedic museums really in danger of being denuded? To suggest that the return of controversial objects such as the Parthenon Marbles from the British Museum would open the floodgates to a systematic emptying out of national collections across the developed world is tantamount to admitting that the majority of objects in those collections were illicitly or forcibly removed from their countries of origin. Everyone knows that is not the case. So what’s going on? Why have James Cuno, Ian McGregor of the British Museum and their colleagues at other encyclopaedic museums embarked on a rearguard action to shore up their strongholds? What are they afraid of?

Even were the Parthenon Marbles to be returned to Athens, the British Museum and the other great encyclopaedic museums would remain great centres of education, pleasure and yes, of enlightenment. The benefits they bestow are appreciated even by those who hold to a counter-Enlightenment world view that seeks to preserve the qualities of mystery, irrationality and magic at the core of human existence that the European Enlightenment sought to dispel. The argument in favour of the selective repatriation or reunification of specific objects is motivated not by a desire to dismantle the encyclopaedic museums but rather to arrive at a fairer distribution of the world’s cultural heritage and to right just a few historical wrongs. Returning certain objects whose original removal involved brutality against a people, or against an ancient site or monument, is surely a noble aim. It is not an expression of nationalism but rather a desire to make whole what has been rent asunder and in doing so to strengthen the ties between nations. The accusation that nationalism is at the heart of these requests divides rather than unites and perpetuates the sense of distance and misunderstanding engendered by the colonial past. Furthermore, the nationalism card could just as easily be levelled at the encyclopaedic museums themselves. 

Here is what Cuno says about those governments requesting return of their heritage: “Many use ancient cultural objects to affirm continuity with a glorious and powerful past as a way of burnishing their modern political image.”

Now here is that same sentence again, but adapted and ventriloquised by me on behalf of those nations: “Many of these encyclopaedic museums use ancient cultural objects to affirm continuity with a glorious and powerful past as a way of burnishing their modern political image.” It works, doesn’t it?

What is striking fear into the hearts of western museum directors is not a fear of losing their Marbles, their kraters, their altars, busts and statues; rather it is a displaced anxiety about how repatriation might symbolise the declining status of the once all-powerful western nations they represent. The museum, and what it contains, is the most visible and eloquent expression of the western nations’ imperial past. As geopolitical developments shift the axis of wealth generation and economic power from West to East, so to speak, so the need to cleave to the material evidence of the colonial era grows ever more urgent. Hence the willingness of the Council of Foreign Relations to host Cuno’s latest polemic.

At the heart of the debate over material culture and the future of the encyclopaedic museum are the multiple economic benefits of cultural tourism. Frequently overlooked are the significant positive externalities accruing to the retention of the Parthenon Marbles by the British Museum in London; the bust of Nefertiti in the Neues Museum in Berlin; or the Benin bronzes in the Art Institute of Chicago. 

The increasingly clamorous calls by ‘source nations’ for repatriation of a few important objects is not a desire to affirm an atavistic connection to an archaic national identity, as Cuno claims (although even if it were, what is wrong with that?). It is motivated as much by a yearning to write, through their surviving material culture, the rich narrative of their historical development — and ours — from their ancient past to the present. The retention by Western museums of most of the key examples of world culture is also to retain the power and authority to write those narratives from a Western perspective. It is hardly surprising that for many source nations the whiff of colonialism lingers in the corridors of our encyclopaedic museums. 

Amal Alamuddin Clooney and Geoffrey Robertson in Athens  
Photograph: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images
James Cuno has been relatively quiet on this topic since assuming the presidency of the J. Paul Getty Trust in 2011, so why has he chosen the present moment to issue a fresh volley against the persistent calls for repatriation? Hollywood may be the short answer. The intervention of human rights lawyer Amal Alamuddin into the Parthenon Marbles dispute has taken the issue of reunification of the Marbles to a new level. Ms Alamuddin’s entry into the most controversial cultural heritage stand-off appears to stem from her recent marriage to actor George Clooney, who uttered an off-the-cuff opinion on the Marbles during a press conference to promote his film, The Monuments Men. His throwaway comment has reignited the Parthenon controversy but whether it will serve finally to help liberate those extraordinary objects from the sepulchre of the Duveen Galleries at the British Museum is debatable.

Ms Alamuddin’s recent visit to Athens sparked a wave of fevered speculation that the Greeks may now be considering resorting to some form of litigation to resolve the issue of the Marbles. Accompanying her in Athens were her London boss Geoffrey Robertson QC, and Professor Norman Palmer, the UK’s most illustrious art and cultural heritage lawyer, who recently re-launched his discreet art and cultural heritage dispute resolution service, ArtResolve. The high-profile media reception granted to this formidable triumvirate on their arrival in Athens may have set alarm bells ringing in Bloomsbury, New York, Berlin, Paris and, it would seem, Los Angeles, California.

Most people familiar with the Parthenon Marbles, with their art historical significance, the circumstances of their acquisition and their subsequent history will already have concluded that to litigate over the issue would be a serious misjudgment. Such an action might enrich a few barristers but it would be most unlikely to result in the outcome that Athens desires. Judges are too often found wanting over the intricacies of art law disputes, but the real reason this particular debate would founder in a court of law is because it goes to the heart of the British Establishment. The implications are simply too profound for it to be resolved in any way other than in favour of the British Museum. That is not to say that the argument for retention is superior to that for return. When considered on ethical, artistic and cultural grounds, as opposed to those of legal title, the case for the reunification of the Parthenon Marbles is compelling. One requires no more evidence for this than the fact that every time a poll is taken and the public is provided with the unvarnished facts of the case, the overwhelming majority votes for return. This alone demonstrates the extent to which the British Museum is failing to act in accordance with the wishes and sensibilities of the people it purports to serve. Were the case of the Marbles to go to law and the Greek case to fail, as it surely would if scrutinised purely on legal grounds, it would put the case for reunification back generations, not to say kill it off once and for all. 

If Ms Alamuddin has the razor-sharp legal instinct for which she has become so respected, she will not be advising the Greeks to venture up the treacherous slopes to law. Instead she will be urging them to keep pursuing the difficult, circuitous path of cultural diplomacy. That is the direction in which global public opinion has been heading for decades, arguing for reunification with ever more passion and unanimity. 

I am writing this on my Apple laptop which has the usual character recognition software built into its keyboard. Every time I type Ms Alamuddin’s name, the computer defaults to Aladdin. She will need to give the Greeks more than a lamp to rub if they are to stand any chance of countering the  paranoiac power of the encyclopaedic museum. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

Freelance writers of the world unite as Artinfo media mogul is branded an “international fraud”

Louise Blouin: the 'Red Queen'
Art writers are fed up with being used as cannon fodder by exploitative media entrepreneurs

Louise Blouin, the London-based French Canadian businesswoman and art media entrepreneur (left) has been branded “an international fraud” by a group of disgruntled Indian freelance arts writers claiming they have never been paid for articles filed for Blouin’s ArtInfo publications. 

According to the New York Post, Blouin’s method is to:

"promise to pay freelance writers in India, get them to write, stall for a month or two on payments and then cut them loose with no pay. Then repeat with new writers — and don't pay them either."

The Indian writers are only the latest to suffer at the hands of the so-called “Red Queen”. 

Blouin’s media empire has suffered no shortage of negative publicity in recent years as a stream of experienced, high-profile American writers and journalists have entered — and just as rapidly exited — through the revolving doors of her various art publications. 

An earlier New York Post story of 2010 didn’t mince its words when it reported freelancers’ claims that the peripatetic millionaire “philanthropist” had “stiffed them” over fees for commissioned and published editorial. 

Recent whispering around the art market water-cooler suggests that plenty more aggrieved hacks are waiting to vent their spleens over non-payment issues with Artinfo. Some earlier victims of the Red Queen's right royal failure to pay went so far as to construct an informal pressure group, the pungently-titled WAAANKAA (Writers Angry At Artinfo Not Kidding Around Anymore). Click here for more on that.

In a breathless dash to build critical mass in online art publishing, Blouin’s media empire grew too quickly as she set about hoovering up a string of leading titles and information providers, but with no apparent business strategy to underpin it. The more uncharitable chatter opined that she was out to prove herself in the art arena after being jilted by lover Simon de Pury. That may or may not be true, but she is now discovering that hell hath no fury like a freelancer scorned. 

BIOBI — ‘Buy it or Build it’ — is a choice most internet companies are confronted with at some point, and Blouin, keen to make her presence felt in the art market as rapidly as possible, chose the former option. In a short space of time she pumped cash from her share of the successful classified ad enterprise she’d founded with her then husband John McBain into prestigious art titles such as Art + Auction, Modern Painters and Art Sales Index.

Had she chosen to invest some of those resources into making the Art Sales Index art price database a viable competitor to Artnet’s and Artprice’s equivalent products, she might have had a monetisable platform from which to grow. Instead she left it as a clunky, malfunctioning, poorly-illustrated search engine which, despite being free, was as useful to serious art professionals as a chocolate teapot.

Since 2000, many art critics and art market writers have seen their traditional bricks and mortar magazine and newspaper jobs undermined by the internet’s largely revenue-less business models and have had to adapt to survive. The news that Artinfo has been consistently defaulting on payment to its freelance providers marks a new low in that narrative. 

It is because good quality freelance writing is so widely available that many internet art companies continue to rely on sticky editorial content to embroider their online offering. But don’t assume that the writers providing this content are properly remunerated for their knowledge and expertise. In most cases they're not. Huffington Post won't pay you at all, so why not blog instead?

Sitting atop many of these art businesses are entrepreneurs and investors with little or no feel for the industry, which may be one reason why so many are failing. In 2010, The Art Newspaper reported that the Russian language version of Blouin’s Art + Auction title was suspended when its Russian publisher The Art Media Group was forced to close following the arrest of its owner, Russian businessman Valery Nosov.

Unlike Blouin, Artnet’s old chauffeur Hans Neuendorf knows the art market inside out, front and back. Yet even Neuendorf’s deep expertise has proved insufficient to steer his internet company to success. In 2012, Skate’s Art Market Research listed Artnet’s failings:
“…with no functioning marketing systems in place and a level of service that is desperately outdated—artnet has never built a CRM system, has no client loyalty programs, no cross-selling and no up-sell programs to push revenue per customer up and stimulate repeat purchase business. The firm has no strategic focus known to its shareholders and no depth in its management team, and, most importantly, it has no access to capital today to match the angel- and venture-capital backed Paddle 8, VIP Art Fair, Artinfo, Artspace, Exhibition A and Collectrium, to name a few. This is without even mentioning deep‐pocketed rivals like Art.sy and Chinese Artron.” 
Note the presence of the now beleaguered Artinfo in that list (others of which have since fizzled out altogether). What Skate’s bullish critique fails to mention, however, is that few if any of these angel-buoyed internet art vehicles have generated any real revenue. Few will release independently verifiable numbers that would allow us to assess their true promise. What they do testify to is the ease with which the world’s cash-rich, knowledge-poor investors can be persuaded to open their wallets when sexy-sounding art internet start-ups are dangled in front of them. 

While clearing out some old files a few days ago I discovered my old dog-eared copy of Artnet’s IPO prospectus. It’s an illuminating document. Like most internet start-ups in the dot-com period it is suffused with the optimistic promise of multiple revenue streams that in just a few years would propel the company towards the sunlit uplands of profitability. 

That was then. Having a few years ago disbanded its online magazine — a useful industry resource nurtured by its then editor Walter Robinson — Artnet is once again largely reliant on its editorial content (hardly a viable internet business model while The Art Newspaper remains the industry’s journal of record). 

Quite how Artnet will climb out of what Skate’s has described as “its increasingly worsening liquidity situation” remains to be seen, but editorial content cannot be the answer, even while the providers of that content are paid a pittance for their endeavours. 

So, with Artnet in a strategic black hole with the vultures circling, and with Louise Blouin’s ArtInfo reeling from a barrage of toxic media coverage, are we finally poised to see some long-overdue convergence in this sector?

As for the despicable treatment of struggling freelance writers, what became of corporate social responsibility?

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Don’t have a heart attack: ‘flipping’ is nothing to be afraid of

Jeff Koons, Hanging Heart
So why are dealers so careful about who they sell to?

The New York Times has just run a piece about the so-called ‘flipping’ of works of art that is apparently rife in the over-heated art market.

“Flipping” describes how those with a speculative instinct (you know, bankers, hedge-fund managers) like to buy works of art and then “flip” them at auction a short while later for a profit. Media reports would have us believe that the practice is growing, increasing in pace, and having a deleterious effect on the art market. 

However, new research commissioned by the New York Times suggests that it is not as commonplace as some people assume:

… the pace last year was only slightly faster than it was in the mid-1990s, signaling that the reselling may be just the latest iteration of a historical cycle, not a lasting change,” says the report.

Here, then, is another example of how many of today’s art market commentators read current trends as troubling innovations when in fact they may be part of a longer historical process. As Charlotte Gould and Sophie Mesplède recently phrased it with reference to the UK art market:
“Many of the commercial strategies adopted in the British art world which today tend to surprise, if not outrage, actually stem from a specific national history in which the role of commerce has both attached stigma to local creativity by hindering some practices, and encouraged the development of marketing innovations.”
One of the most frequently-cited instances of flipping was the acquisition in 2005 by billionaire financier Adam Lindemann of Jeff Koons’s Hanging Heart sculpture (above left) from über-dealer Larry Gagosian for $4 million before selling it at a Sotheby’s auction two years later for $23 million. A furious Gagosian bought it back at the auction.

In his influential book Talking Prices, on the pricing of contemporary art, sociologist Olav Velthuis revealed why some art dealers are cautious about who they sell to. One or two of the dealers Velthuis interviewed made it clear that if a collector buys a work from them and then ‘flips’ it at auction, he or she would never be allowed back into the gallery.

So did Gagosian ban Lindemann from his gallery?

Now Gallerist magazine has run a piece by Daniel Grant about how rising prices in the art market are putting pressure on dealers to bid up works by the artists they represent. Grant suggests that some of this pressure comes from the artists themselves, many of whom expect their gallerists to engage in these practices in order to protect their market.

Grant quotes John Cheim, of Manhattan gallery Cheim & Read, who says: “We are in conversation with our living artists about work that arrives at auction, and we attempt first to place works in collections that are not speculative.” For “speculative” read “likely to flip.”

The New York Times report concludes that, “Flipping remains very much the exception, not the rule,” but whoever said it was the rule? After all, how many people have the sort of capital required to make it a truly profitable activity? Nor does it have to be the dominant practice to be potentially damaging to an artist’s career. Even the occasional “exception” could reap untold harm, as Sandro Chia and Sean Scully will testify.

Whether it occurs frequently or infrequently, it seems clear that flipping is frowned upon by dealers, many of whom view it as potentially damaging to their artists’ equity profiles. It also suggests a culture clash between those with the artist’s welfare in mind (dealers) and those out to feather their own nests at whatever cost to others (speculators). That said, we tend only to hear of the works that have risen in value between acquisition and disposal, not those that were bought and then flipped at a loss.

The essential unpredictability of the auction mechanism (the increasingly common guarantee and irrevocable bid arrangements notwithstanding) also explains why many dealers are keen to “bid up” their artists’ works when they appear under the hammer. It makes sound commercial sense, however unethical it may seem to the uninitiated.

One of the mottoes of Paul Durand-Ruel (1831-1922), the great French dealer and champion of the Impressionists, was to “protect and defend the art above all else.” To that end, he recommended attending auctions to ensure that works by his artists did not sell too cheaply — “To keep prices up, you must never be in a hurry to sell,” he wrote, “and be ready to bid at sales for works by your artists.”

So how reliable or authoritative is the New York Times report?  It was compiled by two agencies, Tutela Capital and Beautiful Asset Advisors. Their methodologies were then audited by two independent experts, Stephen T. Ziliak, professor of economics at Roosevelt University, and Alan F. Karr, director of the National Institute of Statistical Sciences and a professor of statistics and biostatistics at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “Both experts found the methods sound,” says the New York Times.
But aren’t Tutela Capital and Beautiful Asset Advisors both embedded in the very investment culture they are supposedly helping to investigate?
Brussels-based Tutela boast an ability to deliver “a complete range of consulting services to institutional clients,” while aiming to “set the industry standard to provide art and finance solutions.” Fabian Bocart of Tutela Capital told the New York Times that reports of flipping are a form of scaremongering.
“They see bankers and hedge-fund managers coming into the market, and they have a preconceived idea of what they will do. But they’re not the rogues or vultures they imagine.” As a provider of art and finance solutions to billionaire bankers and hedge-fund managers he would say that, wouldn’t he?
Beautiful Asset Advisors, meanwhile, make it clear on their website that they openly ignore art’s aesthetic, symbolic and social values in favour of a focus on its investment potential. Are they not thereby endorsing the carnivorous instincts that underpin the flipping tendency, however occasional, slow-paced, or exceptional it may be?
For all their analytical ability and consultancy expertise, neither of these companies is truly impartial or objective. It’s a classic art market conundrum.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

“Radcliffe ruins everything.” Art Loss Register chairman under scrutiny for passing money to Balkan gangsters

The Times Magazine's exposé of the
Art Loss Register's 'Serbian Strategy' (08.08.2014)
It is perfectly understandable that victims of art theft will want to be reunited with their possessions. Law enforcement agencies and experienced former FBI and Scotland Yard art detectives devote much of their time to that very endeavour, occasionally having to interact with darker elements in the realm of organised crime in order to do so.

It has long been an article of understanding in the art world that while monies occasionally need to change hands in order to access information that might lead to the recovery of stolen works of art, the thieves themselves must not be paid. To do so is effectively to encourage more art crime. 

So, what of the Art Loss Register’s fee-chasing involvement in these activities? 

London-based The Times Magazine (left) has today published an exposé of the methods employed by The Art Loss Register (ALR) in plying its trade. One wonders how many more damaging news reports must appear before this organisation loses the last vestiges of its already tattered credibility.

The Times article reveals how the ALR’s chairman, Julian Radcliffe, paid money to shady figures from the Serbian underworld in order to discover the whereabouts of stolen works of art. You will need to read between the lines to decide just how many ethical lines were crossed in doing so. 

In time-honoured British media fashion, Radcliffe is presented in the Times piece as a “raffish figure,” an “Old Etonian” with “caddish charm”, occupying a romantically shabby office in London, and coming across “a little like something from a Graham Greene novel.” 

These groaning journalistic clichés hide the more unpalatable aspects of the whole ALR operation, which the Times proceeds to elucidate. Its methods continue to alarm European law enforcement agencies and respected insurance companies, amongst others. The auction houses, meanwhile, maintain a sphinx-like silence, perhaps embarrassed by association. 

Yet no matter how many criticisms are levelled at the ALR (a recent New York Times article  threw light on the self-confessed “lying” and “bounty-hunting” that are part of the ALR’s modus operandi), Julian Radcliffe parries every thrust with Establishment insouciance. 

Thus when Thomas Erhardy, head of the Parisian police force’s anti-bandit task force (BRB), says, “Radcliffe ruins everything,” the Old Etonian charmer counters with: “for very good political reasons he [Erhardy] has got to be critical of us in public.” Similarly, when a representative of Catlin Insurance denies knowing that the ALR had given Serbian criminals half of the €60,000 fees and expenses that Catlin had paid the ALR, Radcliffe responds: “Catlin have got to take that public position.” 

This kind of unseemly spat does nothing for Catlin’s reputation. Nor does it say much for Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Bonhams, and numerous other auction houses, who continue to retain the services of the ALR to conduct Due Diligence checks on their auction catalogues to ensure they do not inadvertently handle stolen goods. 

The ALR’s subterranean connections with Serbian gangsters do not look good for the international auction houses. The stench of organised crime has the capacity to overpower the perfume of corporate social responsibility. 

In the absence of a credible alternative, and despite toxic coverage in the New York Times, The Times of London, and across the social network, the major auction houses’ continue to retain the ALR. 

The Times reporter obligingly trotted out the ALR’s boilerplate PR line — that the company earns “hundreds of thousands of pounds a year tracking down and recovering stolen art.” 

However, later in the piece one source close to the ALR offers a corrective to that rosy revenue profile, pointing out that the company “is in an absolute financial mess,” and that it is only Radcliffe’s own cash infusions that are keeping it from insolvency. 

As the New York Times piece reported, the ALR has lost money for the last six years. Radcliffe continues to swat away references to his organisation’s catastrophic financials, insisting that it will ultimately break even and get to profit. Meanwhile, many key staff have left, unhappy with the impenetrable sfumato of the ALR's “Serbian strategy,” to say nothing of its egregious conduct in the Michael Marks and Norman Rockwell Russian Schoolroom cases, to name just a couple of recent examples.

What future for the concept of ‘professional practice’ so enthusiastically championed by the art trade associations while these questionable business approaches are tacitly supported by the auction houses and insurance companies? 

More Artknows coverage of the ALR: