Christie’s Settles $32 Million Dispute over Basquiat Work—and the 9 Other Biggest News Stories This Week
01 March means Armory Week and the art world flocked to Manhattan’s West Side to ring in the 22nd year of The Armory Show.
Some 205 galleries from 36 countries filled Piers 92 and 94 for the most global edition of the veritable art-world institution to date—and the first under the leadership of the new director, Benjamin Genocchio. From Anderson Cooper to Sofia Coppola to Steve Martin, celebrities abounded at the VIP preview on Wednesday, where sales were good, especially for international dealers who found solace in New York’s strong art market. A remarkably robust Focus section, titled “African Perspectives,” also served up a number of the fair’s best booths and most intriguing emerging artists. (via Artsy)
02 This week, the Met Breuer and its inaugural show “Unfinished” opened to critics, who had mixed reactions to the massive exhibition with which the Metropolitan Museum of Art christened their new building.
The Breuer represents an experimental outpost for the Met, an institution not necessarily known for taking risks. As such, the ambitious exhibition “Unfinished,” which surveys 550 years of art history, could well serve as a blueprint of what’s to come for the museum. As our review points out, the exhibition showcases the extraordinary—perhaps unique—ability the Met has put on expansive and encyclopedic shows that result in wide-ranging and generative juxtapositions. Still, “Unfinished” is hampered by a Western focus and a constraining dividing line in the presentation of art created “pre-Picasso” and “post-Picasso.” Several other critics were also disappointed by the firm temporal divisions and the relatively conservative initial outing. As Roberta Smith writes in the New York Times, “at nearly every point the art in ‘Unfinished’ could have been more stirred up, in ways small and large.” Ultimately, however, it will be the people, not critics, who have the final say when the space opens to the public on March 18th. (via Artsy and the New York Times)
03 MCH Group, the conglomerate behind the Art Basel fairs, announced plans Friday to expand their reach through a new portfolio of regional art fairs.
According to the press release, this could involve “joint ventures, acquisitions and new fair launches,” but will not alter any of the existing Art Basel shows nor launch any new editions of Art Basel. MCH is currently in conversation with SME London and Angus Montgomery (both of which worked with the group when it acquired Art HK, now Art Basel Hong Kong, in 2011) about the possibility of forging partnerships. (via MCH Group)
04 An alleged jihadi leader has gone on trial at the International Criminal Court at the Hague in first-ever case that would make cultural destruction a war crime.
On March 1st, international prosecutors at the Hague laid out their case against Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, the man who allegedly helmed a Mali extremist group that razed historic—and religiously significant—sites in Timbuktu in 2012. Prosecutors claim Mahdi implemented extreme Shariah law and oversaw the demolition of several shrines that were under World Heritage Site protection when his organization, which is linked to al-Qaeda, took control of Mali’s northern region. It’s the first case brought before the International Criminal Court that could make cultural destruction a war crime, but United Nation tribunals dealing with violence in former Yugoslavia have classified similar destruction as both a war crime and a crime against humanity. Before proceedings against Mahdi continue, a panel of three judges will decide if the evidence presented meets the burden required for trial. (via The Art Newspaper and the New York Times)
05 In a surprisingly public move, Christie’s sued Jose Mugrabi and his family in an effort to recoup $32 million unpaid on a Basquiat work—though the case was quickly settled.
The dispute dated back to May of 2015, when the Jombihi Corporation (owned by the Mugrabi family) and Mugrabi himself purchased the Basquiat at auction for a price in excess of $37 million. According to a motion filed by Christie’s, the Mugrabis fulfilled their first payment of $5 million but haven’t paid off the remaining balance of $32 million. The Baer Faxt newsletter wonders if the lawsuit signals an end (or at least a decrease) in the often flexible payment schedules afforded by auction houses in the past. In an exclusive statement to Baer, Mugrabi expressed surprise over the lawsuit, while stressing that both sides were attempting to come to an agreement. Indeed, by Friday evening, the parties had settled the dispute, stating that “we all look forward to continuing our long and fruitful relationship together.” (via Art Market Monitor and Baer Faxt).
06 There’s been another departure from the Sotheby’s leadership team: Miety Heiden, senior vice president and head of contemporary private sales for North America left the auction house, it confirmed Thursday.
Earlier this week, chairman of Sotheby’s Europe Henry Wyndham announced that he would be ending his 22-year career with the company—the famed auctioneer made his final auction appearance in London on Wednesday. Other recent departures include Alex Rotter, global co-head of the contemporary art department, and David Norman, vice chairman of Sotheby’s Americas and co-chairman of Impressionist and Modern art worldwide. This turnover comes on the heels of the auction house’s purchase, in January, of consulting firm Art Agency, Partners, and a series of buyouts in November. (via The Art Newspaper and artnet News)
07 On Monday, Bonhams laid off eight members of staff from their Hong Kong office, including Magnus Renfrew, the auction house’s deputy chairman for Asia.
The firing speaks to the increased competition auction houses operating in China face even as the market there contracts. Both Sotheby’s and Christie’s are entrenched presences in the city, and their relatively lasting outposts in Hong Kong have allowed them to dominate the market there. Phillips joined the fray last year, opening a branch in the city. Still more competition comes from mainland auction houses China Guardian and Beijing Poly International, which have both operated in Hong Kong since 2012. In an interview with Bloomberg, Renfrew said, “I was surprised and disappointed at the news,” adding, “but there are already other opportunities emerging that are very exciting.” (via Bloomberg and The Art Newspaper)
08 Fourteen men with connections to a UK-based organized crime group—which, despite a series of failed heists, managed to steal up to £57 million of Chinese artifacts from British museums in 2012—have been convicted for their involvement in the break-ins.
The group’s major misstep was hiring a different, frequently incompetent, gang to execute the robberies remotely. The first attempted robbery occurred in January 2012, when a hired thief snatched a Ming dynasty sculpture at Durham University’s Oriental Museum; he was apprehended before he could flee the scene. Several more botched robberies followed, including one where the gang made off with a jade bowl worth millions, only to forget where they had stashed the loot. But a successful burglary of Cambridge University’s Fitzwilliam Museum in April 2012 netted the group—known as the Rathkeale Rovers—somewhere between £18m and £57m in stolen jade pieces. Interestingly, despite their many blunders, the Rovers’ combined haul is worth more than 2015’s Hatton Garden heist, which took the record for the costliest robbery in English history when £14 million of jewels, cash, and precious metals went missing from 73 security lockboxes. (via two stories in the Guardian)
09 Using data provided on 1,400 auction houses by the website Invaluable, Bloomberg’s James Tarmy found a 12% increase in the sale of fine art between 2014 and 2015—perhaps an indication that any art-market slowdown is primarily impacting the upper echelons of the market.
The analysis is notable because of its novel scope: Invaluable has access to data from many mid-sized and small auction houses. The figure represents a jump from $607.9 million in sales in 2014 to $681.8 million in 2015. Although recent headlines have warned of a cooling art market, those prediction are based primarily on figures from auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s. As Tarmy notes, it’s very difficult to get a sense of the art market as a whole, given that it consists of thousands of smaller auction houses, private dealers, galleries, etc. His analysis, which further drills into the category of Asian art and antiquities in particular, indicates that perhaps money isn’t leaving the market so much as trickling down to smaller sales. It’s an interesting, though certainly limited, analysis—as Tarmy willing admits. For one thing, Invaluable only provided raw totals, not a line-by-line of sales, making it impossible to know if one multimillion dollar purchase is responsible for the bump between 2014 and 2015. (via Bloomberg and Art Market Monitor)
10 British-Indian sculptor Anish Kapoor now owns the rights to the darkest pigment in existence, a fact that has sparked outrage among artists worldwide.
Tech company Surrey NanoSystems created the paint, dubbed Vantablack, with military applications in mind (by absorbing 99.96 percent of light, it helps to conceal stealth jets). Kapoor has been working with the pigment for the last two years, which he has described as “so black you almost can’t see it.” Several artists have spoken out against an artist monopolizing a material. Some wondered if this decision may be a clever marketing move on behalf of Surrey NanoSystems. This isn’t the first time that an artist has secured exclusive rights to a shade—in 1960, Yves Klein patented his famous blue. (via artnet News)