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Panama Papers Expose Art World—and the 9 Other Biggest News Stories This Week


01  From insight on Russian collector Dmitry Rybolovlev to the financial arrangement behind a record-breaking 1997 Picasso sale, the Panama Papers leak has shed light on the secretive dealings of the art world.

(via The Art Newspaper, the Guardian, and the Modesto Bee)


The Panama Papers—a leak of over 11 million documents that amounts to the largest in history—detail the off-shore, though not illegal, dealings of numerous individuals, including Rybolovlev. Currently embroiled in a lawsuit with Swiss freeport magnate Yves Bouvier, Rybolovlev apparently stored millions in art in an offshore company amid divorce proceedings that began in 2008—though in a statement the family’s lawyer called such allegations “misleading” and denied concealing assets. Other juicy details outlined in the Guardian include the complex financial arrangement behind the 1997 record-breaking sale of Picasso’s Women of Algiers (version O). In yet another revelation, the documents reveal that a Modigliani painting valued at $25 million and embroiled in a World War II restitution legal battle is hidden in an offshore company potentially owned by the Nahmad family (their lawyer called this allegation “irrelevant” to the current restitution lawsuit). Although offshore banks, tax havens, and hidden financing aren’t atypical in the art world, the sheer volume of detail contained in the papers is significant and shocking. What changes, if any, the leaks will inspire remains to be seen.



02  The Whitney announced Tuesday that its new building will be emblazoned with the name of billionaire cosmetics tycoon Leonard A. Lauder, the institution’s chairman emeritus and one of its biggest contributors of artworks and financial support.

(via the New York Times)


Lauder’s name will grace the Renzo Piano-designed building, located in the Meatpacking District and inaugurated to much praise last spring. Although Lauder was initially hesitant to endorse the Whitney’s departure from its Upper East Side location (which now houses the Met Breuer), he still contributed $131 million towards the museum’s new downtown home. This announcement indicates that America’s culture of rewarding big donors by splashing their names across the art landscape is not likely to abate. Other notable recent examples include the Met’s new David H. Koch Plaza and the Miami Art Museum—renamed the Pérez Art Museum Miami after real estate mogul and museum donor Jorge Pérez—both of which have been the source of distaste (and the subjects of protest) in recent years.



03  As auction season in Hong Kong kicked off, Sotheby’s sales were up 17% from last year—a surprising turn of events given indicators of a slowing art market worldwide.

(via Bloomberg)

The buoyant sales are all the more noteworthy given that, although the forecast for entire art market is somewhat gloomy, China’s art market has particularly suffered. According to the latest TEFAF report, the art market there contracted by 23% in 2015. Yet Sotheby’s total of $400 million—which included sales of paintings, jewelry, Chinese art, watches and more—came amid reports of Chinese buyers filling the auction rooms. Indeed, the top lot went to former taxi driver Liu Yiqian, who snapped up a $35 million ink painting by Zhang Daqian. It appears that the good news is not limited to Sotheby’s, with Bonhams and other auction houses also reporting strong Hong Kong sales. Though one data point isn’t enough to make steadfast conclusions, the results suggest that the art market and luxury economies don’t straightforwardly mirror broader macro-economic trends.



04  An audit of Auctionata has found an alleged history of substantial trade violations occurring at the Berlin-based online auction house.

(via artnet News)


The compliance audit was conducted by the accounting firm KPMG in January of last year at the behest of Auctionata, which has been preparing to go public. Among the findings are allegations that CEO Alexander Zacke and his wife Susanne used both real and false names to participate in auctions hosted on Auctionata—though Alexander vehemently denies this was an attempt to inflate prices and says such bidding no longer occurs. The report also states that employees, investors, and board members all allegedly acquired work using the website, a practice that breaks auctioneer trade rules. In a statement, the auction house noted that the issues occurred at the “the early stage of the company” and that “all issues pointed out by the report have already been addressed in 2015.” Still, the report has prompted speculation that the company’s IPO may have to be postponed and is an interesting indication of greater regulatory light being shown on the opaque art trade.



05  The Gurlitt hoard of Nazi-looted artworks is due to be exhibited at Germany’s Bundeskunsthalle Bonn and Switzerland’s Kunstmuseum Bern.

(via the Guardian)


The works were uncovered between 2012 and 2014 in apartments belonging to Cornelius Gurlitt. Gurlitt’s father had built the collection of some 1,500 pieces while among a group of art dealers brought on by the Nazi regime to sell works of so-called degenerate art confiscated from museums, as well as works stolen or bought cheaply from Jewish families. The majority of the collection, which includes works by Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall, among many others, was discovered in Gurlitt’s Munich apartment in a tax raid in 2012 but was not reported until over a year later. Just under 500 pieces were deemed as having potentially been looted by a special task force mounted after the discovery, but just five have been definitively proven as such, to date. Gurlitt, who died in May 2014, bequeathed the collection in its entirety to the Kunstmuseum Bern, a  move which put the prestigious museum in a considerably difficult position. As part of the agreement to accept the collection the museum reportedly pledged to put all of the pieces on public view, and this announcement appears to be the fruit of that pledge.



06  Photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe in drag, shot in the 1970s, are at the center of a multi-million-dollar lawsuit filed against the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation and a handful of galleries and museums.

(via the New York Post)

Performance poet Bobby Miller alleges that, despite taking the photos himself, they’ve been reproduced and displayed publicly as Mapplethorpe’s self-portraits—an act Miller says infringes on his “exclusive rights” to the images. The works in question have appeared at Sean Kelly Gallery, the Whitney, the Guggenheim, and elsewhere. Miller is seeking $65 million in damages from the five institutions that have exhibited the photographs, $45 million to come from the Mapplethorpe Foundation alone. The news comes in the midst of renewed attention for Mapplethorpe, sparked by a recently released HBO documentary about the artist’s life alongside a pair of retrospective exhibitions at LACMA and the Getty Museum.



07  Unable to pay its debts, the French brass foundry known for producing controversial bronze Degas sculptures will close.

(via the New York Times)


A French judge has ordered the Chevreuse foundry to shutter and liquidate its assets in order to reimburse its creditors. The bronzes produced there have been the subject of heated debate regarding their authenticity—though such disagreements haven’t prevented the works from finding buyers willing to pay up to $1.5 million at auction. The contention centers around whether the plaster molds used to cast the bronze sculptures at the foundry can be traced back to wax originals created by Degas himself (the artist only sculpted in wax or clay during his lifetime, soundly refusing to make works from bronze). Still, the bronzes have been cast by a series of different foundries authorized by Degas’s family after the artist died in 1917. This ruling will bring the production of the French artist’s bronzes to a close after nearly a century.



08  On Monday and Tuesday, two men linked to the 2009 theft of an Edvard Munch lithograph worth roughly $240,000 were arrested in Oslo.

(via the Guardian)


The men—who were due to appear for a pretrial hearing on Wednesday—are no strangers to the police according to national media, who have reported that both had criminal records. Although the pair are currently under suspicion for handling stolen goods, they are not being charged with the Munch theft itself, a smash-and-grab job that occurred in November 2009 at an Oslo art dealership. The work in question, which was recovered Monday, dates back to 1914. Interestingly, thefts of Munch works are remarkably common. In one 1994 instance, thieves walked out of Norway’s National Gallery with a version of the Norwegian artist’s iconic painting The Scream, leaving behind a card that said: “Thanks for the poor security.”



09  As of July 1st, Austria’s Essl Museum will no longer organize exhibitions, nor allow the public to view its collection.

(via The Art Newspaper)


According to the institution, which is just a short drive from Vienna, the closure is a result of the Austrian government’s refusal to provide public funds to support its operations. (It will come as little surprise that this is not conventionally how private museums are funded.) In 2014, Essel offered to sell his collection to the state, in an effort to save his home improvement store chain BauMax. The government turned him down, amidst criticism both of the quality of most of the work included in the collection and the use of state funds to, essentially, support a private company. Millionaire industrialist Hans Peter Haselsteiner then stepped in, purchasing a majority stake in a newly-formed entity which held the collection and was funded by a group of some 40 banks. The deal stipulated that the 44 most high-priced works from the 7000-work-strong collection would be sold. With the museum now closing, almost 90% of the museum’s staff will be laid off, with 38 of 44 employees losing their jobs. The remaining employees will continue to tend to the private collection originally put together by Karlheinz Essl, whose impressive trove of contemporary works includes the likes of Gerhard RichterHermann Nitsch, and Anselm Kiefer.



10  Christie’s announced Tuesday that it will be shuttering offices in Boston, Philadelphia, and Palm Beach, bringing its number of regional outposts in the U.S. down to eight.

(via Bloomberg)


Although Christie’s leads the pack in auction house revenue worldwide, it did report a 5% decline in January sales—perhaps an indication of the current art market slowdown that has auctioneers preparing for diminished sales in the coming months. Sotheby’s also recently bought out 5% of its staff in late 2015. However, a spokesperson for Christie’s said it has future plans to grow its presence in the Midwest, Southwest, and West Coast.


—Abigail Cain, Alexander Forbes, Isaac Kaplan, and Tess Thackara


Cover image: Edgar Degas, Grand Arabesque, Second Time, ca. 1885-90. Image courtesy of the RISD Museum.