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. 


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?



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,, 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?

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Oxford seminar calls for more rigorous standards in technical art history

Professor Mark Pollard of the University of Oxford
 chairs the closing session at the research seminar  
We are just a few weeks away from a three-day international meeting in The Hague that seeks to address the highly topical issue of ‘Authentication in Art’.  To attend, you will need to fork out a swingeing €700 attendance fee, plus accommodation and expenses, all of which is likely to exclude a fair few interested commentators, myself included. 

So it was particularly constructive that Nicholas Eastaugh and Jilleen Nadolny of London-based Art Access & Research, the leading specialists in art materials analysis, organised a free, one-day symposium at Trinity College Oxford to explore some of the core issues facing this emerging discipline. Yesterday’s event was also used to informally announce the imminent launch of Dr Konstantin Akinsha's Russian Avant-Garde Research Project (RARP), an explicit acknowledgment that Russian modernist art remains particularly susceptible to fakes and forgeries. 

The 30 delegates at Oxford were drawn from a range of scientific and art historical disciplines, reflecting the extent to which this burgeoning research area requires a blend of analytical and interpretative methodologies embracing art history, pigment and materials studies, connoisseurship, analytical chemistry, database technology, and so on. 

It will be interesting to see whether The Hague meeting succeeds in progressing any of the ideas and aspirations discussed at the Oxford seminar, most of which centred around the need for more rigorous professional standards and protocols. With the art market booming again, and fakes proliferating, it now seems clear that charlatanism is not confined to the faking of paintings and the forging of provenance documentation. It also extends to a new breed of self-appointed and ethically compromised ‘forensic scientists’ willing to issue certificates of authenticity for inauthentic works in return for financial kickbacks. 

There are essentially two aspects to what is now commonly termed ‘technical art history’ (the fuzzy issue of nomenclature was another underlying theme of the seminar) — academic analysis of works of art and market-commissioned analysis. However, it is not widely known that the leading practitioners of the latter also take a disinterested approach to what they do. 

Research and analysis conducted by Eastaugh and Nadolny at Art Access & Research is entirely disconnected from any market outcome and their fees are in no way dependent on the real or notional value of the works they investigate. That approach represents the industry benchmark for best practice. However, there are still too many market participants seeking the services of the art market equivalent of snake oil salesmen to endorse and authenticate questionable pictures. The distinction between academic and commercial motives has become a leitmotif of art forensics. 

Boris Kustodiev's Odalisque, ...or is it?
What can the industry do to combat ethically negotiable practitioners? That is yet to be decided. As the symposium heard, conventional courts of law are ill-qualified to pronounce on art market matters and too often their judgements are flawed, as the recent case of the Kustodiev canvas at Christie’s (right) suggests.  

The art market is often described as “the last unregulated market,” but not everyone agrees with that assessment. My recent blog entry (here), which hinted at a putative correspondence between the activities of hedge funds in the financial markets and opportunities for insider trading at the top of the art market, was dismissed by Art Market Monitor as “a spurious connection that retails the mistaken idea that there is no regulation in the auction market (a falsehood that never seems to die).” 

In my piece I quoted New York Magazine writer Andrew Rice who recently wrote: 

“It’s an opaque market, where secret side deals, price manipulation, kickbacks, and collusion are an everyday facet of business. It rewards inside information, and since the market is largely unregulated, players can trade on it without any fear of legal consequences.”

Certain aspects of the art market are indeed regulated, as Art Market Monitor maintains; the conventional rule of law pertains as much in the art world as it does in any other sphere. Money-laundering and other fraudulent practices are generally dealt with severely (forgery seems to be an exception, inviting short sentences in open prisons, and celebrity media contracts on release). The processes of self-regulation work…but only to a degree. Opportunities to exploit the informal nature of the art trade are abundant and potentially destabilising, as the recent Beltracchi, Knoedler, and Subhash Kapoor cases amply demonstrate. 

During the Oxford seminar's closing discussion, Dr Anna Dempster of Sotheby’s Institute called for a more nuanced understanding of the balance to be struck between market transparency and the confidentiality that most art professionals see as essential to a healthy trade. Summarising, Nicholas Eastaugh called for a professional code of practice in art authentication, preferably one ratified by the main professional bodies and leading market participants. It was agreed that a starting point would be a consensus on minimum standards.

Questions that might re-emerge at the forthcoming Hague conference include: how to promote creative collaboration between art historians and their ‘technical’ counterparts; how to get the technical laboratories to work productively together; and how to expose those unqualified practitioners with unacceptably close ties to market outcomes. 

One thing seems certain — “Connoisseurship down the microscope,” so to speak, is here to stay.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Risk and Uncertainty in the Art World

Risk and Uncertainty in the Art World is a timely new publication from Bloomsbury edited by Anna M. Dempster of Sotheby's Institute.

The volume contains essays by Anna Dempster, Tom Flynn, Tom Christopherson, Anders Petterson, Olav Velthuis, Neil De Marchi & Hans J. Van Miegroet, Marina Bianchi, Rachel A.J. Pownall, Steve Satchell & Nandini Srivastava, Elroy Dimson & Christophe Spaenjers, Laurent Noël, and Arjo Klamer.

Amazon link here.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Insider trading in the art market: "That's fun."

Steve Cohen (left), the US hedge fund manager, über-collector and owner of Damien Hirst's pickled shark, is renaming his SAC Capital Advisors hedge fund. In future the company will be called 'Point72', referring to the firm's long-standing headquarters at 72 Cummings Point Road, in Stamford, Connecticut. However, as the Wall Street Journal has noted, "The switch is part of an effort by Mr Cohen to distance himself and the firm from their connection to the biggest insider-trading investigation in Wall Street history."

But now take a look at the world of blue-chip fine art auctions (a realm in which Mr Cohen is a major player) and focus on the efforts by another New York-based vulture capitalist — Daniel Loeb — to force Sotheby's into generating greater shareholder value.

Loeb has noticed the extraordinary spikes in value for certain contemporary artists and believes Sotheby's could be doing more to challenge Christie's performance in that sector.

So what's the difference between the insider-trading activities that hedge funds practice in the conventional financial markets and the mechanisms currently pumping the top end of the art market to ever higher prices? We will never know to any precise degree, because one thing hedge fund  collectors like Daniel Loeb are NOT calling for is greater transparency in the art market. What he and the other Masters of the Universe want is to control the art world in the way that they control global finance and government.

The way to achieve that is to capitalise on the art market's lack of regulation. As New York Magazine put it:
"...the hedge-fund guys tend to treat artists like growth stocks, preferring those not yet judged by posterity, because that’s where there’s room for major price appreciation.  [...] The rewards can be enormous for those who have an edge. It’s an opaque market, where secret side deals, price manipulation, kickbacks, and collusion are an everyday facet of business. It rewards inside information, and since the market is largely unregulated, players can trade on it without any fear of legal consequences. That’s fun."
This is the surely a credible explanation for the unprecedented rise in prices at the top of the art market. If it is true that hedge fund collectors operate in the art market in the manner that they operate in the stock market — then we need to adjust our sense of what prices mean in the art market today.

They no longer reflect aesthetic appreciation, but instead are a function of the financial muscle that can be brought to bear on an artist's output. It's a self-fulfilling cycle. Pity the poor artist who assumes a connection between price and the quality of her work. It is nothing of the sort; more often it is a case of "taking positions, using leverage, and weighing risk and reward more aggressively," as one art world insider interpreted Daniel Loeb's plan for holding Sotheby's feet to the fire.

Seeking the source of the now prevalent culture of unashamed speculation, most commentators point to the famous Robert and Ethel Scull sale held at Sotheby's in New York in 1973. It was at that sale that the artist Robert Rauschenberg took exception to what he saw as the exploitation of his creativity by Scull's speculative approach to contemporary art.

Poussin Adoration, London National Gallery
I'd go back further than 1973. In 1956, Sotheby's were trying to persuade a retired naval officer to consign Poussin's Adoration of the Shepherds (right) to its London auction block. The vendor, the Norfolk-based aristocrat Jocelyn Beauchamp, eventually allowed Sotheby's director Vere Pilkington to take the rolled-up canvas back to London.

Shortly afterwards, Beauchamp was approached by a London dealer who offered him £10,000 cash for the picture (the offer was raised to £15,000 a few days later). Furious at the trade's attempt to scupper their instructions, Sotheby's chairman Peter Wilson offered Beauchamp a guaranteed sum. That was the first time a guarantee had ever been offered by an auctioneer to a vendor.

The painting, which had once been in the collection of Sir Joshua Reynolds, was eventually sold for £29,000 to London and New York dealer David Koetser. Guarantees (and more recently so-called 'irrevocable bids') are now a fixture of Sotheby's and Christie's high-ticket auctions but the precise details of the cake-cutting are never divulged. Sotheby's chairman Bill Ruprecht told me in an interview in 2000: "I have never lost money on a principal position." In 2008, they lost $80 million on guaranteed transactions.

It was the aggressive marketing tactics of Peter Wilson in the 1950s and early 1960s that dragged Sotheby's kicking and screaming into the modern world to finally challenge Christie's. Today, such is the power of Wall Street and the financial markets that the pressure for auctioneers to compete ever more aggressively comes not from within for reasons to do with art and the cultures of collecting. Instead it comes from hedge fund manipulators like Cohen and Loeb who are fixated on shareholder value and maximising their own opportunities for ever greater wealth generation.

If the art market is eventually forced to succumb to external regulation, it will be because the hedge funds have been permitted to do to the art market what they did to the mortgage markets that eventually brought on the global economic crisis.

Meanwhile, what is the impact on art and artists?

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

London Old Master dealers Agnew's to continue under new ownership

Agnew’s, the long-established international fine art dealers, which closed its Albemarle Street gallery to the public last year, has been acquired by new owners and will continue trading under the direction of Anthony Crichton-Stuart, former head of Christie’s Old Master Paintings department in New York and subsequently a director of Noortman Master Paintings. 

The new ownership will not end the Agnew family's connection with the business, however. Julian Agnew, the sixth generation to work for the family firm, and Christopher Kingzett, a former director (shown seated extreme left), will remain as part-time consultants. 

Julian Agnew commented: “I am delighted by the successful sale of the company, and that Agnew’s can now look forward to celebrating its 200-year anniversary in 2017”.

Lord Snowden's 1965 photograph of Agnew's directors (above) shows (left to right): Richard Kingzett, Colin Agnew, Hugh Agnew, Geoffrey Agnew, Evelyn Joll. It reveals the extent to which the business endured as a tightly-knit family unit. (The two non-Agnew directors, Kingzett and Joll, both married into the Agnew clan). 

The firm was founded in Manchester in 1817, opening a branch in London in 1860, and has a proud history with some of the most discerning private collectors and museums amongst its international clientele.  These have included collectors such as the 1st Lord Iveagh and the Rothschild and Pierpont Morgan families and, in more recent years, Paul Mellon, Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza and the great Norton Simon.  

It has made sales to the national galleries in London, Edinburgh and Washington and, amongst many other American museums, the Metropolitan and the Getty, as well as the leading public collections of continental Europe, Australia and Japan.  From its beginnings the firm rapidly became a leader in the field of British paintings and watercolours, contributing in a major way to the growth of the market for contemporary British art in the nineteenth century.  

From the 1870s until the present day, it has been known internationally for handling the works of major artists including Giotto, Raphael, Gentile da Fabriano, Fra Angelico and Sassetta from Italy , northern painters Dürer, Rembrandt, Rubens and Van Dyck, Spanish masters including El Greco, Velázquez and Murillo, and from France, Poussin, Claude, Boucher and Fragonard. British art has always been a speciality with Reynolds, Gainsborough, Constable and, above all, Turner strongly represented.  In 1895 William Agnew was created a baronet and in 1973 Geoffrey Agnew received a knighthood for services to the arts.

Anthony Crichton-Stuart

The new owners, led by Boston collector and investor Cliff Schorer, have purchased the holding company of Thos. Agnew & Sons Ltd. from members of the Agnew family.  The purchase includes the stock of works of art, an important library, and an extensive photographic archive. It will be interesting to see whether the new owners will see fit to digitise the archive.

Anthony Crichton-Stuart (right) said:  “The Agnew’s name is strong and well respected and we aim to build upon this legacy. We are confident that the company’s historic reputation for connoisseurship and fair dealing will remain one of its greatest assets and that this, combined with the dynamic and progressive approach of our new team, will secure the future of the firm well into the twenty-first century. Agnew’s will continue to acquire and present great works of art to museums and private collectors, whilst maintaining relationships with the company’s many existing clients as well as attracting a new clientele.  We are currently looking for appropriate premises for the gallery but in the meantime we are operating from 13 Old Bond Street, London.”

Following reports that the Albemarle Street gallery was to close and the board was considering winding down the business, the new owners approached Agnew’s at TEFAF, Maastricht, last year.  The board continued the business while negotiations took place, and these were successfully concluded in late 2013.  

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Art forger Wolfgang Beltracchi: the hagiography begins

"He didn't send anyone to a soup kitchen, he didn't foreclose anyone's mortgage..." —CBS broadcaster Bob Simon

Below is an extract from 'The Con Artist', an edition of the CBS programme '60 Minutes', which aired on February 23rd, in which host Bob Simon interviews German art criminal Wolfgang Beltracchi. Simon alights on a truism of high-ticket art forgery, namely that the victims are invariably very wealthy individuals rather than those at the lower end of the income scale.

There may be a delicious irony in that some of the rich individuals responsible for immiserating countless thousands of low-paid workers during the credit crunch are the main victims of egregious art forgers like Beltracchi.

True, he may not have sent anyone to a soup kitchen or foreclosed anyone's mortgage, but his is not a victimless crime.   

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

All that is solid melts into air: Christie's New Bond Street gallery sold

Party time at the now vacated Mayor Gallery in Cork Street
Just before Christmas, the venerable Mayor Gallery, one of London's oldest modern art galleries, threw a shindig to mourn its imminent departure from the Cork Street premises it has occupied since the 1930s (left).

New York party animal, bon viveur and art market commentator Anthony Haden-Guest was among those holding court, reciting his "folk-noir" verse about the global art world to a rag-tag crowd of revellers bent on necking as much booze as possible. "All that is solid melts into air," shouted the beleaguered poet, before adding: "That's a phrase from Karl Marx, by the way." Bohemia ain't what it used to be.

The most high-profile victim of ever-encroaching property developers, the Mayor Gallery has now moved to a first floor space a few doors up the street. Along with The Redfern Gallery and Browse and Darby, the Mayor helped give Cork Street an ambience that became the envy of the international art world. More galleries will probably follow, doubtless making way for the up-market rag trade that in recent years has colonised most of New Bond Street just around the corner. Ironically the rag trade — and women of negotiable virtue — were the earliest occupants of Cork Street, so there is a certain glum symmetry to these developments.

The most recent evidence of the accelerating demographic changes affecting this part of town was the announcement of the sale earlier this month of the building that is let on a long lease to Christie's at 103 New Bond Street. The sale to Far Eastern investors — for "just over £30 million"— comes just a couple of years after the Grade II listed premises were made over to house Christie's primary-market  dealing business. 

Christie's and Bonhams cheek by jowl
in New Bond Street
Located next door but one to Bonhams' recently refurbished premises (right), the 9,500 sq ft gallery is the former home of the Haunch of Venison contemporary art gallery that Christie's acquired in 2007. Christie's new New Bond Street primary business was launched barely a month ago with the incompetently hung 'When Britain Went Pop!' exhibition.

That show — which comprised an impressive number of seminal works of British Pop Art — was selected largely from the vast Pop inventory of Leslie Waddington, another long-standing Cork Street dweller. Only this month, Georgina Adam, The Art Newspaper's esteemed editor-at-large, opined: "I expect the tensions in the dealer versus auction-house scenario to worsen [in 2014]". The recent Waddington-Custot/Christie's love-in would suggest otherwise.

Announcing the sale of Christie's premises, the Estates Gazette reported that the New Bond Street premises "generates rental income of £600,000 pa," but that the new Crossrail, arriving in Bond Street in 2018, "is expected to spark significant rent hikes from reviews in 2015 and 2020." 

That will surely mean even tougher times ahead for those remaining art galleries struggling to survive in this part of town. Perhaps the real tension in 2014 — or at any rate in Bond Street and environs — will be between the art trade and the high end luxury brands that now dominate the area.

All this provides more evidence of why the art trade is now moving steadily from bricks to clicks.


Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Parthenon Marbles: A European Concern

Paper delivered by Tom Flynn at the Round Table at the European Parliament 
in Brussels on 15 October 2013

Ladies and gentlemen, colleagues, distinguished members of the European Parliament. Let me begin by thanking Professor Sidjanski for the kind invitation to contribute to today's Round Table. It is a pleasure and an honour to be with you in Brussels. 

What can we say about the case for reunifying the Parthenon Marbles that has not been said a thousand times before? What more can we add to the numerous persuasive arguments already made for reuniting the dismembered components of Phidias's finest achievement? How many more times must we convene to reiterate the importance of restoring coherence to a work of art whose desecration at the hands of Lord Elgin damaged one of Greece's greatest gifts to the world?

The answer to these questions is that there will always be more to say about the case for reunifying the Marbles. There will always be new and ever more compelling arguments for reuniting them in Athens. And until that happens our generation and future generations will continue to convene and will go on reminding the British Museum of its moral duty to restore to these objects the dignity that Lord Elgin so rudely snubbed. The story the Marbles tell is of a cultural moment that is a precious and irreplaceable part of our birthright as Europeans and the bedrock of our democratic ideals. That story loses much of its narrative charge while its components remain dispersed across different locations.

The Parthenon Marbles are more than just a work of art. They are more than a mechanism through which to increase the footfall of cultural tourism. They are more than a means by which to impose some meaning on the randomly accumulated collections of an encyclopaedic museum.

The reason the Parthenon Marbles transcend conventional museum categorisation is that they have the potential to demonstrate that in a time of global economic turmoil and geopolitical unrest cultural objects can unite us across national boundaries and remind us of our shared humanity. I say 'potential' because there is an irrefutable logic to the proposition that a united, coherent sequence of objects that speaks with such clarity of our shared background is more likely to foster unity among nations than a fragmented series of objects that continues to symbolise disunion and cultural rupture. For this process to begin, however, the dialogue between Greece and London must rise to a higher level based on mutual trust and generosity of spirit.

The Parthenon Marbles are unquestionably important within the cultural landscape, but they have become renowned for all the wrong reasons. While they should be celebrated for representing the zenith of the Periclean building programme of fifth-century Athens, instead they are more widely recognised as the most controversial and divisive objects in world culture. They should be peacemakers but we are not allowing them to take up that peacekeeping role. Thus they have become emblematic of the wider disputes between western museums and developing nations that have become known as the 'culture wars'. 

While the Marbles remain immured within the Stygian gloom of the Duveen Galleries where their true significance to European art and culture is so wilfully misinterpreted and misunderstood — our attempts to build harmony in the realm of cultural heritage will be impaired. The international museum community — but more specifically the British Museum — has the power to repair that rupture. The symbolic resonance of a unifying gesture of this kind could be profound and long-lasting.

Allow me briefly to frame this within a broader context. The events that unfolded in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years, and now in Syria, have brought unprecedented quantities of looted cultural objects onto the international art market. Many of these objects are removed from ancient sites under cover of darkness by local people seeking to scrape a meagre living for themselves and their families. Such subsistence looting destroys what archaeologists refer to as an object's 'provenience', that is the specific positional coordinates and context in which the object was located in the ground, tomb or temple site. Having been extracted, the objects and artefacts are moved up the art market food-chain, so to speak, before finally ending up in the home of wealthy collectors or museums.

Most museums now know better than to acquire objects of uncertain ownership history and the UNESCO guidelines have set down clear markers on acquisition. Moreover, thanks to the Internet and related communications technologies the world's encyclopaedic museums are now vigilantly monitored by well-informed individuals and interested parties for any hint of a problematic acquisition. The social network has become a critical filter surveying the movement of cultural heritage goods and no longer can museums acquire or display suspect objects without risking public exposure and condemnation. 

Nevertheless, so profound and widespread is the political turmoil ravaging the Middle East that the traffic in cultural objects is now arguably out of control. It is unlikely to improve until peace and economic stability return to the nations affected. Museums are implicated in this 'food-chain', partly as a consequence of their historical development as the repositories of cultural objects and partly because of their self-imposed obligation to continue collecting. 

In the last few months a major Australian museum was found to have acquired an important temple statue of Shiva that had been looted from a site in South Asia. It now seems likely that other museums were recipients of objects from the same supply chain. That said, on the other side of the equation, many museums have taken it upon themselves to return objects that have been recognised as being of specific sacred or ritual value to the source nations and communities from which they were originally expropriated during earlier times.

It is against the background of ongoing cultural upheaval that the British Museum now has an opportunity to make an extraordinary gesture of reconciliation by reunifying the Parthenon Marbles. This would set an example to other museums around the world and would confirm that contrary to what many people have been led to believe, the British Museum DOES appreciate and respect the architectural significance of the Parthenon Marbles in relation to the Acropolis monument. It would be an acknowledgement that their very uniqueness justifies an amendment to the British Museum Act of 1963 that has hitherto obstructed substantive progress on the issue. Our most eminent cultural heritage lawyer, Professor Norman Palmer of University College London, has pointed out that such an amendment would be perfectly achievable. 

This would clear the way for both parties to enter with open minds into a constructive mediation process. Instead of cleaving to an anachronistic legal instrument that will merely perpetuate the impasse, the British Museum now has an opportunity to demonstrate that Europe — and indeed the rest of the world — can be unified by cultural objects, not divided by them.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Finders, Not Keepers! Cultural Treasures Belong in Their Country of Origin

Intelligence Squared, the leading global forum for intellectual and cultural debate, held its first event in Asia on 15th May 2009.

The debate took place before a live audience of 600 people at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre during ART HK 09 (Hong Kong International Art Fair) and tackled the contentious issue of the rightful ownership, display and sale of historically significant artefacts.

IQ2 Asia co-founder, Yana Peel, said, "From the ongoing dispute over the ownership of the Elgin Marbles to the recent furore over the Yves-Saint Laurent Paris auction of two Imperial Chinese bronzes looted from the Old Summer Palace, the ownership of cultural treasures continues to be the subject of great controversy. We are delighted that Outset and Wedel Fine Art will bring the debate to ART HK 09, given the Fair’s success in attracting leading collectors, industry players and members of the public to focus on cultural themes in this dynamic part of the world.”

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Sunday, September 22, 2013

"Lying", "bounty-hunting", "profiting" from stolen art: the true face of the Art Loss Register

The New York Times article on the activities of The Art Loss Register – or, more revealingly, on the activities of its chairman Julian Radcliffe – was enough to prompt me to re-open the blog.

The phrase ‘dog with a bone’ will doubtless jump to mind, but, correct me if I’m wrong, haven’t we seen a host of organisations set up in recent years to foster due diligence in the art market, to promote better provenance research, more effective policing, more scholarly approaches to art crime, improved museum security, and so on (how long have you got?). That’s one side of the moral balance. Somehow, on the other side, the art market has allowed an organisation, whose chairman (a "gentleman farmer" according to the New York Times) has admitted to lying on two occasions, to continue its “bounty-hunting” escapades that seem to flout best practice at almost every turn.

It's the lack of checks and balances that is most concerning. Unsurprisingly, the major London auction houses – Sotheby’s Christie’s and Bonhams – are all shareholders in this organisation.

The New York Times article was admirably balanced, but you need to parse its studiously cautious, litigation-conscious tightrope-walking to get at the real implications of what its research exposed.

The message that emerges is that a self-confessed liar has somehow nuanced himself into what the paper euphemistically calls “an important figure in the art market.” This probably tells us more about the famously unregulated art market than it does about the company that is supposed to provide due diligence services to the people its chairman lies to. Cue sheepish whispering from the media and the trade – 'this unacceptably monopolistic situation is all we’ve got, so we might as well carry on with it until something better comes along'. Better the devil you don’t know…

The New York Times piece has been a long time in the making, but it doesn’t tell us anything that many of us were not already aware of. In fact we seem to know a lot more than the New York Times knows, or is prepared to reveal. It skated over the shameful Norman Rockwell Russian Schoolroom case, the court papers from which – containing email exchanges between all the parties involved – are enough to chill the blood. The ALR’s approach to Holocaust assets were also given only a squeamish dusting but are another reason I dissuade people from interning with the company. It’s bad enough that the most heinous crime in history was visited upon the Jews but it’s an act of egregious meanness to discover the whereabouts of a looted asset only to refuse to divulge its location until the victim or the victim’s heirs cough up a swingeing recovery fee.

In recent weeks more important members of staff have left the sinking ship, no longer able to reconcile their employ with their knowledge of the ALR’s modus operandi. Even Christopher Marinello, its erstwhile legal counsel, has finally decided enough is enough and has moved to distance himself from the organisation. I can recommend a good dry cleaner. He leaves at the end of this month to set up an alternative art recovery organisation. Will he succeed in persuading the compromised auction houses to step inside?

Meanwhile, the stricken vessel ALR continues to patrol the polluted seas of stolen art, now plying the Balkan waters, casting fees into its murky depths in the faint hope of a catch. The day is fast approaching when no port will give it berth.

There’s more to come, much more.