Justice Department Moves to Seize Basquiat, Picasso Works in Widening 1MDB Scandal—and the 9 Other Most Important News Stories This Week
Catch up on the latest art news with our rundown of the 10 stories you need to know this week.
01 On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Justice filed for the seizure of works by Pablo Picasso and Jean-Michel Basquiat allegedly purchased with stolen money from the 1MDB fund.
The complaint seeks the forfeiture of $540 million in assets—ranging from paintings to an Oscar won by Marlon Brando—procured with stolen money from the Malaysian development fund 1MDB. The filing expands on seizure motions brought last year by the U.S. government, which estimates that $4.5 billion of 1MDB money was used illegally by public officials and others tied to the fund. Jho Low has previously been ensnared in the probe, with allegations including that the financier purchased $137 million in art with 1MDB money. The two works in Thursday’s filing by the Justice Department—a $9.2 million collage by Basquiat and a $3.3 million Picasso—were given to Leonardo DiCaprio by Low for use in a charity auction. Representatives of the actor, who signed a note with Low absolving him of any potential liability, say he is in the process of returning the pieces and is cooperating with authorities. The government is also looking to seize a photo by Diane Arbus as well as the rights to films financed with money from 1MDB including the The Wolf Of Wall Street and Dumb and Dumber To.
02 A strong edition of Art Basel in Basel opened to VVIPs on Tuesday, with sales reaching into the seven- and eight-figure range.
The fair welcomed 291 galleries from 35 countries, as well as the art world’s elite collectors, who were reaching deeper into their pockets this year than they have for at least the past two editions of Art Basel in Basel, Artsy’s Alexander Forbes reports. “People are in the mood to buy,” said Eleanor Acquavella, as the ink dried on a sale of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Three Delegates (1982), for $15–20 million. Many of Art Basel in Basel’s galleries commented on how global the crowd of patrons has become. Hauser & Wirth partner Marc Payot said he had seen a rise in Chinese and Japanese collectors. “Even more now, Basel is the fair where, internationally, curators and collectors really come,” he said. Philip Guston’s Scared Stiff (1970) sold from the gallery’s booth, fetching around $15 million, and demonstrating that private galleries are increasingly competing with auction houses for top works. White Cube director of private sales Mathieu Paris said that collectors were making decisions much more quickly than they had at the past two years’ fairs. “I really have the feeling that the market is back,” he said.
03 Artist Khadija Saye has been named as a victim of the fire that swept through London’s Grenfell Tower on Wednesday, killing at least 30 people.
“Where is Khadija Saye?” asked Labour MP David Lammy (who knew Saye through his wife) in the pages of The Guardian on Thursday, the day after a fire swept through the west London tower block. Saye, whose work is currently on view at the Venice Biennale, went missing after the fire broke out. “I have heard nothing since her Facebook post from 4am on Wednesday reading: ‘Please pray for me and my mum. Just tried to leave, it’s impossible.’ I fear she may have perished in the inferno on the 20th floor,” wrote Lammy, who confirmed her death on Friday. The death toll from the Grenfell Tower fire sits at 30 as of Friday afternoon, but authorities say that figure will rise significantly as more remains are found; they also caution that some victims may never be identified. The fire has prompted outrage among residents, who say their concerns about safety following renovations were ignored by the local council. Kensington and Chelsea, where the tower is located, is the richest constituency in England on average, but is also marked by drastic inequality, with Grenfell providing social housing to less affluent residents. The public and opposition politicians have also rounded on the Conservative government’s handling of Grenfell Tower, both before and after the fire, blaming a regime of austerity and greed for the disaster. “Don’t let them tell you it’s a tragedy,” wrote Lammy. “It’s not a tragedy, it’s a monstrous crime. Corporate manslaughter.”
04 In a significant reorganization, Daniel H. Weiss has been named President and CEO of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
(via the New York Times)
At a meeting Tuesday, trustees of the museum voted unanimously to appoint Weiss—previously President and COO—to this new position. The change will give Weiss power in determining a replacement for Thomas P. Campbell, who resigned from his position as director and CEO in February. This new leadership structure is a sign that “fiscal responsibility now trumps artistic control” at the museum, the Times reports, as Weiss would now oversee the director role, which manages programming. The museum has dealt with a number of crises in the past months, including a halted multi-million-dollar expansion project and a deficit that could balloon to $40 million. These factors are largely regarded as the impetus for Campbell’s departure. Those close to the Met’s decision told the Times that the museum sought to retain Weiss as a stabilizing force as leadership continues to distance itself from Campbell.
05 Former MoMA president Agnes Gund has sold a $165 million Roy Lichtenstein painting to found a criminal justice reform charity.
(via the New York Times)
In January, Gund, president emerita of the Museum of Modern Art, sold “Masterpiece” (1962) for $165 million including fees. Gund will dedicate $100 million from the sale to starting the Art for Justice Fund, a charity aimed at criminal justice and incarceration reform. Gund says she was prompted to organize the fund out of concern for her grandchildren, six of whom are African American, in the wake of cases like the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin. “The larger idea is to raise awareness among a community of art collectors that they can use their influence and their collections to advance social justice,” Darren Walker, Ford Foundation president, told the Times. Together with the Ford Foundation, which will help oversee the fund, Gund is asking other collectors to follow suit in order to raise another $100 million over the next five years. Current donors include Whitney chair Laurie M. Tisch, American Express CEO Kenneth I. Chenault and his wife, Kathryn, and philanthropist Jo Carole Lauder.
06 After controversy erupted over a performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar that depicted the titular figure as Donald Trump, the NEA quickly denied any ties to the show.
(via the National Endowment for the Arts)
Mounted by Shakespeare in the Park, the play depicted the violent murder of the Trump figure. Despite defenders citing that the overall message of Julius Caesar is against political violence, outrage from conservatives prompted the private sponsors Delta Air Lines and Bank of America to pull their funding. After Donald Trump Jr. tweeted asking if any public money went to the show, the National Endowment for the Arts quickly posted a message to its website. “No NEA funds have been awarded to support this summer’s Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar,” the statement read, “and there are no NEA funds supporting the New York State Council on the Arts’ grant to Public Theater or its performances.” The declaration comes as the agency is being targeted for elimination under the President’s recently released budget.
07 A Manhattan mural by David Choe has been vandalized following backlash related to comments the artist made bragging about a sexual assault.
The mural, finished less than a week ago, is located on the corner of Houston Street and Bowery in the Lower East Side. Owned by Goldman Global Arts (an extension of Goldman Properties), this particular wall has been home to a series of rotating murals by high-profile street artists since 2008. When it was revealed that Choe would be next to paint the wall, critics protested the decision as a tacit acceptance and promotion of rape culture and sexual assault. On a podcast episode in 2014, Choe described an incident where he forced a masseuse to engage in oral sex. Although Choe later said he had misrepresented the story—calling it “bad storytelling in the style of douche”—he has also discussed and joked about rape in multiple public forums. On Monday, the graffiti group Big Time Mafia spray-painted the letters “BTM” in black across the recently-completed mural. It is not yet clear whether this was a response to Choe’s alleged past or simply an act of vandalism.
08 Historian Sarah E. Bond has received death threats over an essay she wrote about race, beauty, and classical sculpture.
Titled “Why We Need to Start Seeing the Classical World in Color” and published on Hyperallergic, the piece discusses how, in antiquity, sculptures that today appear as white marble would have been painted different skin tones and colors. Bond writes that as white supremacist groups and others explicitly mobilize these ancient sculptures as epitomes of pure whiteness and ideal beauty, more effort should be made to correctly depict these sculptures as they originally would have looked: covered with colorful paint through a technique known as polychromy. But after several right-wing publications responded to the piece with incendiary headlines like “College Professor Says White Marble Statue Promotes Racism,” Bond began receiving threats. “They viewed the piece as ‘liberal professor says that all white statues are racist,’” Bond told Artforum. “And that is clearly not what the piece is about.”
09 A temporary theater constructed in the middle of one of Rome’s most prominent archaeological sites has prompted criticism.
(via the New York Times)
The 3,000-seat structure was built to house a rock opera based on the life of Emperor Nero, which will run for three months this summer. True to the source material, the theater is situated atop the ruins of a temple on Palatine Hill, land that Nero absorbed into his estate following a fire that burned Rome to the ground. The setting has angered some conservationists. “This may not be the first grave abuse perpetuated [sic] against Rome’s monuments, but it is certainly the most serious, both for the size of the structure,” a former caretaker of the city’s antiquities wrote last month. Other critics denounced the increasing commercialization of historic sites across Italy. Producers of the show, however, noted that their rental fees (plus a percentage of ticket sales) will go towards underfunded restorations.
10 Seven countries have severed ties with Qatar, endangering partnerships between cultural institutions across the region.
(via The Art Newspaper)
Part of a continuing diplomatic crisis, a number of nearby nations—including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates—are blockading Qatar because of its alleged support for terrorist organizations. In the past, Qatari institutions such as the Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Islamic Art have worked successfully with other museums, both public and private. A representative from Sotheby’s Doha office expressed concern that the boycott will restrict art’s ability to travel both in and out of Qatar, making it more difficult to organize exhibitions. However, others were more optimistic. “If political relations were severed for any period of time, the close family connections across the region would act as a continued link,” a Doha arts professional told The Art Newspaper.
Cover image via Wikimedia Commons.