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 Chi 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:







Friday, July 18, 2014

An impregnable, alienating, self-regarding élite: the art world according to art forger John Myatt

Tom Flynn and John Myatt (right) with 'Indiana' canvas
Convicted art forger John Myatt is again basking in the media spotlight, this time generated by a major exhibition of his paintings at Castle Fine Art gallery in London's Bruton Street. 

Thursday's opening night was heaving with Myatt fans bussed in by Castle's 37 regional outlets around the country. The prosecco flowed, the crowd Ooh'd and Aah'd at the fake Monets, Picassos, and Renoirs, while Myatt beamed and obligingly signed catalogues for his many admirers. 

One Castle employee, from the company's Wolverhampton gallery, predicted that most of the works would sell over the coming weeks. With smaller canvases priced at £2,500 and larger Impressionist-style works set at around £25,000-30,000, the exhibition looked set to be another lucrative outing for the repentant forger. The following day we sat down for a chat:

John, most artists would die for crowds like last night. To what do you attribute the success of an opening like that?

I think people find the art industry impregnable and alienating and run by a group of self-regarding élites, basically, and possibly the idea that there is a route around them and maybe also a route towards the enjoyment of paintings that doesn’t have to be brokered by the opinion of another élite that support that élite. And there is a certain honesty in something that says, ‘I’m a fake; take me or leave me. If you don’t like me, that’s fine, if you do like me that’s even better.’ But I think for the rest of the time the art establishment, as such, and the magazine industry and the intellectual industry and everything else behind it has actually intimidated a vast amount of the public into a kind of passive acceptance of other people’s opinions. And this is just … the popularity of what I do … might be because it liberates people to say, ‘Well actually, it might look like a van Gogh but I don’t like it.’ You can’t actually say that in front of a real van Gogh or stand in front of one hundred million pounds and say…well, I suppose you could…

People do, quite frequently…

Castle clients celebrate the latest Myatt show
Yes, they might, but the fact is they’re mesmerised by that amount of money, or how many houses you could buy or what you could do just by living off the interest. All that for just one van Gogh. So your opinion to some extent is utterly worthless in the face of the vast amounts of money that this thing actually embodies. So there you are, looking at a painting that says, “Well actually I’m a fake van Gogh anyway” and suddenly you can … I had a conversation with a guy once who was the director of the museum in Stockholm and he’d come from Stockholm to interview me and he said, “If I had an exhibition of van Gogh’s paintings they’d be queuing all the way round the block, but if I had an exhibition of fake van Goghs they would be queuing all the way round the block and all the way down to the railway station.” The public have a vast appetite for it because it sort of waves two fingers up at the art world.

So is this something you’ve only discovered since the success you’ve enjoyed after coming out of prison?

Very much so. Because I really thought that what I’d done first of all was wrong and it was a mistake to have done it. And well, I mean originally it was the policeman who arrested me who started me off painting again. 

I gather the prosecutor was at the private view party here last night.

Yes, Clifford. He was here last night. But I wasn’t prepared, as you said…it was sold out last night in two hours. There simply weren’t any places left. They almost said we’ll need to have two openings. And so yes, if your question is why is it so popular, that, I think, is the explanation.

Couldn’t you have done what do you do now prior to meeting John Drewe? Did it ever occur to you to do that?

No it didn’t. Because the prison sentence and the notoriety that came from that, and the press interest, whether I like it or don’t like it, and quite often I don’t like it, because I’d rather have got where I am now without the crime. But I couldn’t have done it. It’s a back story. Even in contemporary art the back-story is crucial. The Rothko back-story, the De Kooning back-story, the Barnett Newman back-story. All this is fascinating and helps to elevate and maintain the prices. My back-story, unfortunately, is part of who I am and what I do.

But you’ve clearly come to terms with that.

Well, there is no point in not coming to terms with it.

But there is also a human fascination generally with people who have broken the law. You’re not a criminal; you didn’t murder anyone, but even if you had murdered someone you could become a source of fascination. 

Yes.

John Myatt
Pigeon and Apple: View from E.Wing, Brixton Prison
Now, you paint your own pictures as well. I saw the picture of your Brixton prison cell (left). It reminded me of Mandela’s pictures painted from his Robben Island cell. Not that I’m comparing you with Mandela, I hasten to add…

No but I know what you mean.

But those personal works are in a completely different idiom, so is there a consistency to your own style?

Yes, there is. I’m a representational painter. That’s why I do what I do because it liberates me from the stylistic area where I am, so I can say, "OK, I feel like splashing some paint around today, so I’ll have a go at Giacometti, or Monet, or Miro." It doesn’t often factor back into my own stuff, which is much more precise and geometrical. I like balance and composition and so on.

Has anyone given you a show of your own work?

Well, to some extent this one here is a show of my own work. 

But I meant a show devoted just to your own original works in your own style, because you’re clearly a competent painter.

Well, maybe, but it will probably happen after I’m dead. And then they’ll start collecting my originals.

Most of your work seems to be of the modernist period. You don’t do Renaissance style painting or works inspired by the Dutch Golden Age

Actually I have. I did Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and van Goyen seascapes.

Is there anyone you wouldn’t take on for any reason?

I’d struggle with the Pre-Raphaelites. What’s his name… who painted The Scapegoat…

Holman Hunt.

Yes, it took them eighteen months, two years, even three years to paint some of their pictures. Frith’s Derby Day, for instance. I just can’t be bothered, frankly, and why would you? I really admire the Pre-Raphaelites. I mean, the beautiful, wonderful technique, but it’s just not fun.

John Myatt,
Nude with Mandolin, in the style of Picasso
Yes, and I get the sense from that Picasso Cubist picture downstairs (right) that you luxuriated in the process. You seem to be enjoying yourself.

I love it. 

And these are not exact copies of existing pictures…

Oh no. That would be silly, wouldn’t it?

So in the great ‘paint-off’ between you and Beltracchi, who would win?

Well, he’s done a lot better, hasn’t he. Is he still in prison?

I think he may be out now, but in any event it was hardly prison as he was allowed out during the day to carry on painting.

He does seem to be a bit of an a*******, doesn’t he?

Well, you said that, not me! But yes, he does seem to be rather up himself.

I think so, but the guy’s a brilliant forger. Better than me. He’s just brilliant but he spoils it by kind of wallowing in it a bit.

I get the sense that this is becoming almost a new industry now. I mean we’ve had the Pollocks in America and Beltracchi’s Expressionists in Germany and you obviously have notoriety and fame in the UK and beyond. What do you put that down to?

The inaccessibility of the art world. It’s money. You just look at the money and everything else makes sense. I mean you can’t afford a Miró. So the next best thing is something that looks like a Miró, appears to be a Miró, even has a Miró signature on the front but it’s a fake. But not a copy. People always say, can you do a copy? And I say please, no, because it’s boring, because all they say then is, “Ooh, look your bit there isn’t quite the same…” That’s not what painting is all about. These days people can project images onto canvases, and fair play to them, but it’s not what I do. No, it’s about money.

How long does it take you to make a work?

That Picasso over there took from start to finish six or seven months, but that other one on the easel took maybe ten days, two weeks. But even then I made so many changes to it because I thought I’d finished it, but another couple of weeks went into it. Some things, like that Picasso watercolour, were done very quickly, maybe two or three hours. There’s no point taking months and months because you lose the freshness and spontaneity of the marks which are crucial to the immediacy of it. So if it took him half an hour to do it, it had better take you half an hour too.

One of the young men from the Castle Gallery in Wolverhampton was here last night and he told me that all the pictures in this show will have sold out over the coming weeks. There is obviously a very big demand for what you do.

Well, yes. Lucky me.

Is that correct, that you’ll sell out this entire show? 

Yes, I’d have thought so.

So you must be making plenty of money from it?

Well, certainly I make a living. I don’t have a nervous breakdown every time a brown envelope drops on the mat

As you used to do before you met Drewe

As I used to do. I probably receive thirty or forty percent of what they sell things for.

And how many galleries do you have looking after your work?

Well, Castle have thirty or forty galleries up and down the country, but what I’m trying to persuade them to do is…while I like having these big shows...I’m in two minds about it, really. I’d like to have an exhibition where you’ve got twelve or thirteen paintings, just smaller. But on the other hand I wouldn’t be getting The Sun newspaper and The Times and the Independent, and you. I wouldn’t be getting that, but I’m not sure that I’d mind really. I’d just like it to be a little bit more intimate. 

So where do you paint from these days?

North Staffordshire, Junction 14, M6. That’s where the studio is. We have an old farm up there. 

How did they treat you in prison? Were they good to you?
They weren’t bad to me. The secret for just getting on in prison is just not to have any kind of attitude. Get your head down and get on with it. There is a certain kind of person who just….I remember one boy came in… I’d been in about two weeks and he had come in for some kind of traffic accident. And he was only in for about two days but he completely freaked out. He threw himself on the razor wire and cut himself to ribbons and because he tried to escape he got an extra month or something. And he was walking around all bandaged up and everyone was laughing at him. Ninety percent of the human population can cope with some form of incarceration up to about six months or so. The problems are, as you say, murder, or aggravated burglary or something, where people are getting seven or eight, ten or fifteen years, and in one or two cases twenty or thirty years and they send these guys round the prisons, painting the prisons. They’re still in prison now, some of these guys and when they come out there will be nothing for them. There’ll be no home, no family, no nothing. And that’s a problem. A social problem, really.

How long were you in?

I was in for four months. I got a year but that came down to six months because any sentence under four years you’d normally serve … and I then I had an electronic tag which knocked two months off that, so I went in in February and came out in June. 

It’s a happy ending for you. Would you say crime pays? You would surely have to conclude that from last night’s reception and the crowds flocking to your exhibitions?

Yes, you would. I tried to cover that before. I mean I would not be talking to you now were it not for the crime. You can’t airbrush that out.

That’s candid of you

Well, it’s the truth and, as you said, I think in the hierarchy of crime, you’ve got the pedophiles who even in prison people would like to murder them and possibly at the very bottom you’ve got art fraud, which many believe is a victimless crime, which it isn’t actually. But certainly, there are aspects to it that…I mean many people say to me, “They shouldn’t have sent you to prison. It’s ridiculous. You should have done community service.” So in the public mind, certainly, art fraud isn’t really a crime, but it is. I mean grannies buy paintings. I’ve just done an interview with a young man who is doing something for the BBC called Fake Britain and there are a whole lot of people who are knowingly putting paintings on eBay signed Monet or Renoir, or whatever, with no paperwork or provenance or anything. I mean it’s obvious to you and I that they cannot possibly be…but they’re cleverer than that. I mean they’re putting Herrings, you know, the sort of thing that might have come from a country house, like the fox hounds that Herring did, or a beaten-up old Samuel Palmer, so it’s just possible, and so…and they are actually using old canvases and stretchers, so they’re not fakes, they’re forgeries, but they’re actually putting them on there and saying, sort of disclaiming. It’s quite wicked, actually.

How do you personally differentiate a fake from a forgery, because the two terms are used interchangeably.

If you look at Monopoly money, that’s fake money, forged money is what I might have in my pocket right now. My paintings are fakes because the stretchers are modern, the canvas is modern, and the paint is acrylic. It always was, that’s the craziest thing.

And you used house paints on the earlier ones, didn’t you?

Yes! House paints! With KY Jelly!

Yes and it’s extraordinary when you think that Beltracchi got caught because they found Titanium White in his pictures after he had been so scrupulous about ensuring that all his pigments were of the period.

Yes, that’s how they got him, you see, and they would have got me straight away on that basis. 

What’s the most expensive painting you’ve sold. What’s the best price you’ve got?

It’s in here right now. I think, £39,000.

Is that the Lichtenstein?

No, the Monet. The Avenue of Flowers.

Do you sell more Impressionist style pictures than Modernist pictures, or Pop paintings?

Yes, I think the Monets do quite well. But you can’t spend your life painting French Impressionism.

Have you done Pollock?

No

Rothko?

To commission, yes, but not here. They’re very large and cumbersome things to do.

So there’s no likelihood that any of these things could make their way back to market at some point and fool someone, be mistaken for the authentic article?

The paintings in this gallery? It would be possible in a hundred years time if they were re-lined.

So you mark everything?

Oh, yeah! Everything’s clearly marked on the back and given a catalogue number and we have a database and computer chip on some of them and all kinds of ways to protect me from any kind of criminal thing. I don’t want all that to start all over again, no way.

And find yourself back in Brixton Prison.

And of course this gallery here, because they would be implicated.

Did the Castle Gallery come you or did you approach them?

They came to me. I had a little show in Dover Street about 2003 and Mr Washington, who owns Washington Green, [the owners of Castle Galleries] said, ‘Would you like to work for us?’  

Monday, June 16, 2014

US sculptor wins $450,000 copyright damages against billionaire property developer

Russian billionaire property developer Igor Olenicoff:
guilty of copyright infringement
Back in August 2011, I revealed how Igor Olenicoff, 71, a Russian billionaire property developer (left), had commissioned unauthorised copies of original sculptures by the California-based artist Don Wakefield and had displayed them in the grounds of his corporate buildings in Newport Beach and elsewhere. 

Olenicoff, a convicted tax felon said to be worth around $2.4 billion (Forbes), was later discovered to have commissioned the copies from a Chinese stone-carver in Beijing. 

Wakefield’s approaches to Olenicoff for an explanation as to why his work had been copied without his permission were snubbed.

My subsequent report of the case for The Art Newspaper was spotted by US lawyer Gene J. Brockland of St. Louis, Missouri law firm Herzog Crebs, who offered, pro bono, to represent Wakefield in a copyright suit against Olenicoff and his company Olen Properties Corp. (see my Artknows report here).

Last week, Wakefield (right) won his copyright suit against Olenicoff on all counts, the court awarding him $450,000 in damages.

Percent for Art
One aspect of the case that has not yet been fully explored is whether Olenicoff was in some way in breach of his obligations under the Percent for Art Scheme, which requires developers of new buildings to devote 1 percent of the overall construction budget towards public art to be displayed in the grounds. 

As part of my original investigation into the Olenicoff case I discovered a number of Bejing stone-carving companies who were prepared to copy sculptures based on images provided to them 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 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. 

However, as The Art Newspaper has just reported, the Percent for Art scheme has been subject to widespread neglect in many US cities, which has sometimes allowed property developers to ignore the scheme altogether. “Cities including Los Angeles, Buffalo and Pittsburgh have either failed to set aside money for the initiative or have tied up the proceeds in red tape,” according to The Art Newspaper.

When I approached the relevant Percent for Art authority in the City of Brea, California over the Olenicoff case, it appeared that the full information necessary to satisfy the ordinance had never been forthcoming. 

One of the unauthorised copies
of Wakefield's works 
One of the Percent for Art requirements states: “The Artist represents and warrants that … the Sculpture is unique and original … and does not infringe upon any copyright or other intellectual property right.” (City of Brea, Art in Public Places Policy Manual, 2012). (For a full account of this case, see my chapter - ‘Negotiating authenticity: contrasting value systems and associated risk in the global art market’ in Dempster, A. (Ed.) Risk and Uncertainty in the Art World (Bloomsbury, 2014, pp109-124.) 

As I also reported in The Art Newspaper, Wakefield was not the only artist whose moral rights were abused by Olenicoff. Another American sculptor, John Raimondi, also fell victim to Olenicoff’s scheme. His case will be heard from June 24.

If anything, Raimondi's complaint is even more compelling than Wakefield’s. Some years before we revealed the Olenicoff/Beijing scam, Raimondi had approached Olen Properties Corp. to discuss making work for them, but at some point Olenicoff fell silent on it. 

According to court documents outlining Raimondi’s complaint: 
“The sculptures were to be custom-made for the defendants, as they were not in Raimondi's inventory. The defendants represented to Raimondi that they were interested in purchasing his art in order to comply with city ordinance(s) requiring developers to spend a certain percentage of money on public art; in this instance between $100,000 and $250,000.”
Olenicoff had apparently "requested photographs showing multiple views of the sculptures.”  However, 
“…approximately ten days after the second meeting, Olenicoff refused to speak with Raimondi. Defendants instead had an assistant relay to Raimondi that Olenicoff had a change of heart about the sculptures. Instead of purchasing the sculptures from Raimondi, defendants, at their direction, had multiple unauthorized and infringing copies of the sculptures manufactured in China.”

As has been widely reported, Olenicoff is also a convicted tax felon. In 2007 he pleaded guilty to syphoning more than $350 million into European bank accounts before a UBS employee, Bradley Birkenfeld, blew the whistle. Olenicoff was ordered to pay $52 million in back taxes and was sentenced to two years probation and 120 hours of community service. 

As my chapter in the Risk and Uncertainty book (right) points out, the still rapidly globalising art world continues to throw down fresh challenges to market participants. Risk is not merely something to be assessed and quantified by wealth managers and investment advisers. Artists too must remain vigilant, particularly since our concepts of originality and authenticity are not shared across cultures. 

Thankfully there are still a few lawyers willing to fight the oligarchs and the billionaires who would otherwise ride roughshod over artists' moral rights.  

Friday, April 25, 2014

Spot the head-spinning irony as Science exposes fake Hirsts

Fake Damien Hirst paintings Fake Hirst spin painting
(image courtesy Manhattan District Attorney's Office)
The outcome of a recent court case in New York suggests that one way of establishing the authenticity of Damien Hirst spin or spot paintings — all of which were made by studio assistants — is the absence of any indication that the work was made by a specific studio assistant. Stop sniggering, this is serious stuff.

A Florida pastor was recently convicted in a Manhattan court of selling fake Hirst paintings. After the case, one of the jurors spoke on condition of anonymity to the Brooklyn-based art blog Hyperallergic

The juror reports that one of the fake paintings produced in evidence at the trial, “had something on it that certified that the work was made by someone in the studio.” This was clearly added by the faker in the (misguided) belief that it would indicate authenticity.

It’s perhaps not surprising that a faker might seek to insert something into a painting that would signal its author. After all, works of art have traditionally been signed by the artist who painted them or from whose studio they originated. Not all of Hirst’s works are signed, and nor do they come to market with the kind of “authentication letter” that apparently accompanied the fake works in the New York case.

And yet despite the absence of these traditional indicators of authenticity (after all, who is the real ‘author’ of an original Hirst spin or spot painting?) it is still possible to establish through size, canvas quality, etc., whether or not a work is a ‘genuine’ Hirst. The aptly named Science Ltd. — Hirst’s production company — are responsible for this quasi-scientific authentication process, but even they must be struggling to manage the imbroglio that his opportunistic modus operandi has created. 

Although no single assistant is ever credited with any particular work issuing from Hirst’s studio, he has said of one of his assistants, Rachel Howard, “She's brilliant. Absolutely fucking brilliant. The best spot painting you can have by me is one painted by Rachel.” (Burn, G., On the Way to Work, Faber, 2001) Very funny, given that definitively establishing which works Rachel Howard painted would be nigh on impossible.  

Howard is now a successful painter in her own right. As a Quaker-educated child she is said to have pondered the deep existential question: ‘If God made me, then who made God?’. Only a cynic would reply with the name Frank Dunphy for Howard’s own work testifies to a far more aesthetically curious and emotionally engaged approach to the possibilities of painting than the mind-numbingly banal merchandise that issued from the Hirst factory. 

Another assistant, on leaving Hirst’s employ, asked him for one of his paintings as a souvenir of her time with him. According to Hirst, he told her, “‘Make one of your own.’ And she said, ‘No, I want one of yours.’ But the only difference, between one painted by her and one of mine, is the money.’” (Burn, ibid

Fake Hirst spin painting
(image courtesy Manhattan District Attorney's Office)
We can assume from this exchange that Hirst correctly interpreted the assistant’s request as a request for money. After all, why else would she want the art when it’s something anyone could make? 

The factory set-up isn't the only reason authenticity is a problematic issue for Hirst Inc. It’s common knowledge that Damien likes breaking the art market rules, slaughtering sacred cows, and generally changing the terms of engagement. After his spot print editions flew off the walls of their original retailer, Eyestorm.com, he was said to have been considering producing a new work in an edition of a million. Classic Hirst hubris or maverick instinct for marketing? It matters little, for he never proceeded with the idea, perhaps advised against it by Frank Dunphy, his business manager and the real architect of his apotheosis from art world enfant terrible to global luxury brand. 

The prospect of having to sign so many prints might have been another factor in dissuading him from going ahead with the million print edition. Hirst found signing his Eyestorm spot prints so onerous that in order to break the tedium he occasionally signed other names instead of his own. I recall seeing ‘Mickey Mouse’ and ‘David Hockney’ scrawled on the border of two spot prints in the Eyestorm warehouse.

What those jokily signed works are worth today will remain an imponderable until one of them comes to market. Even then, who could authenticate it? Will connoisseurship do the trick? Or will Science once again prevail?