The Top Art News Stories of 2016—Part 2

Artsy Editors
Dec 30, 2016 1:00PM

Look back at this year’s biggest news moments with our rundown of the top 20 events of the year. Find Part 1 here.

11  The art world was rocked when new evidence was discovered in one of art history’s biggest—and yet most arbitrary—disputes.

The evidence in question, unearthed in July, pertained to just how much of his ear Vincent van Gogh severed. While researching the Post-Impressionist painter’s life, author Bernadette Murphy stumbled across a note in an American archive written by van Gogh’s doctor. It included two sources which appear to indicate that the artist lopped off his entire ear, not simply a piece, as some historians believe. Research for Murphy’s book, appropriately titled Van Gogh’s Ear: The True Story also shed light on the identity of the girl to which van Gogh gifted his severed ear. Long assumed to be a prostitute named Rachel, it turns out that she was actually a maid in a brothel whose given name was Gabrielle Berlatier. A more important debate around the artist’s oeuvre came in November when two respected art historians proclaimed 65 ink drawings in a newly revealed sketchbook to be authentic works by van Gogh. The Van Gogh Museum responded swiftly with a wholehearted rejection of the claim. The book’s French publisher, Le Seuil, has subsequently threatened legal action due to the losses they’ve incurred following the dispute.

12  The 1MDB corruption scandal sent ripples through the art world when works from the collection of Jho Low, a Malaysian financier and rising art patron, were seized by prosecutors.

The July seizure arose following allegations that Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak had personally recieved over $1 billion, largely from the 1Malaysia Development Bhd. fund, more commonly referred to as 1MBD. According to reports, Low purchased works including Monet’s Great Saint George (1908-1912; for $35 million) and Water Lilies With Reflections of Tall Grass (1914-17; for some $13.6 million) with funds from 1MDB. Four works have been seized so far by prosecutors. Low is a confidant of Prime Minister Razak and quickly ascended in the art world ranks over the past three years, thanks to multiple high profile, eight-figure purchases at Christie’s and Sotheby’s. In October, the matter was complicated further when David Nahmad claimed that Water Lilies With Reflections of Tall Grass was in fact his painting and thus should not have been confiscated. Though the court complaint details communications between Nahmad and Low regarding the purchase of the painting, the dealer claimed that the deal had not been completed. Nahmad had purchased the work at a Sotheby’s sale in 2013 for $13.6 million. The court filing only detailed an initial $2.25 million transfer from Low’s account to Nahmad’s.

13  Artists erected statues of a naked Donald Trump across five U.S. cities, one example of the many critical artworks created in response to the now-President-elect.

The work, titled The Emperor Has No Balls, was conceived of by anonymous anarchist art collective INDECLINE and simultaneously placed in public spaces in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Cleveland, and Seattle on the morning of August 18th. The collective worked with a Las Vegas-based artist named Ginger to produce the life-sized Trump from 300 pounds of clay. The obese caricature lacks a particular body part but has otherwise exaggerated physical features, from veins to stomach fat. The work was created in protest to the Republican nominee and immediately set off a slew of selfies with the naked Trump—along with critiques for body shaming. But this was neither the first nor the last instance of artistic protest. In November, more than 150 of New York’s artists and art-world figures gathered in SoHo, outside of Ivanka Trump’s apartment, to make a plea to president-elect Trump’s daughter in a candlelight vigil as part of the @dear_ivanka Instagram campaign organized by curator Alison Gingeras and artist Jonathan Horowitz. Among those in attendance were artists Marilyn MinterCecily BrownRob Pruitt, and art dealer Bill Powers.

14  Following a bizarre four-year-long legal battle over the authorship of an alleged Peter Doig painting, a federal judge ruled that it was not the artist’s work.

Though the owner of the painting claimed it was by Doig—the internationally renowned artist whose paintings are worth millions—the artist insisted that he could not have painted the work. U.S. District Judge Gary Feinerman agreed, ruling in August that Doig “absolutely did not paint the disputed work” based on “massive evidence” put forward over the seven-day trial in Chicago. The ruling also determined the creator of the work was actually Peter Edward Doige, a carpenter and amateur painter who has since passed away. Following the hearing, Doig issued a statement regretting the duration, and the mere existence, of the case: “Today’s verdict is the long overdue vindication of what I have said from the beginning four years ago: a young talented artist named Pete Edward Doige painted this work, I did not.… Thankfully, justice prevailed, but it was way too long in coming. That a living artist has to defend the authorship of his own work should never have come to pass.” Meanwhile, gallerist Peter Bartlow still believed the work was by Doig, while fellow plaintiff  Robert Fletcher, who owns the painting, maintained that he brought the case in a desire to uncover the truth about the painting’s authorship, rather than for a potential payday. The painting was estimated to have been worth $6 million—if it was found to have been painted by Doig.

15  The judge presiding over a long-running Holocaust restitution lawsuit shocked observers by ruling that the Norton Simon Museum will keep two Cranach the Elder paintings.

Marei von Saher, the heir to Jewish art dealer Jacques Goudstikker, sued the museum nearly a decade ago, arguing that the two Lucas Cranach the Elder pieces were forcibly taken when Nazi Hermann Göring took control of Goudstikker’s company in 1940. As such, argued Von Saher’s lawyers, the works should be restituted to her. In his August ruling just weeks before the case was set to go to trial, U.S. District Court judge John Walter dismissed the restitution claim, finding that the Norton Simon Museum had legal title to the Cranach paintings. Walter ruled that Desi Goudstikker, Jacques’s widow, and her representatives failed to make a claim on the works in the requisite timeframe required by Dutch law following the conclusion of the war. The Norton Simon case is but one of many Holocaust restitution suits this year, which also saw London’s National Gallery sued over a $30 million Henri Matisse painting allegedly stolen after World War II and heirs of a famous Jewish art dealer taking the German state of Bavaria to court over eight works allegedly seized during Hitler’s campaign of “Aryanization”

16  The market for works by emerging artists cooled significantly in 2016, with the value of some artists falling nearly 90% at auction.

At the Phillips “New Now” sale in September, works by Hugh Scott-Douglas and Christian Rosa fetched just $30,000 and $22,500, respectively, and a Lucie Stahl painting (low estimate: $6,000) went for just $563. Scott-Douglas and Rosa works had previously achieved prices of six figures during the period of emerging art speculation that took place in 2013 and 2014. Totals across the auction market this year were down significantly, but emerging art was perhaps the hardest hit. During London’s Frieze Week auctions, totals at Phillips were again down almost 50% (though they mustered a solid 94% sell-through rate by value.) The auction house, which has traded consistently in new and trendy names over recent years, has refocused, dropping some of the frothier artists from its New York sales in November and adding in a greater selection of blue chip material. The strategy paid off, with the house achieving impressive results that led some market observers to question whether it was poised to make the Big Two (Sotheby’s and Christie’s) into a Big Three.

17  The trial of Guy Wildenstein wrapped up, with the billionaire art dealer now awaiting a verdict in the case.

Wildenstein, whose trial wrapped in October, is charged with tax fraud and money-laundering in a case that has thrown a very public spotlight onto the normally reserved and secretive family known in the country simply as “Les W.” Beyond providing tabloid fodder, the prosecution provided a rare glimpse into the complex financial arrangements and freeports used by some wealthy art-owning individuals to shield themselves from tax laws. French prosecutors say that Wildenstein should have declared roughly €616 million in taxable assets after the death of his father, further alleging that Guy and his late brother Alec used secretive trusts to move $250 million in art from New York to Switzerland. In his defense, Wildenstein asserted that he was simply following the advice of lawyers and finances, and that his father began the process of reorganizing the trusts in July, months before he died in October. Prosecutors asked the tribunal of judges presiding over the case to sentence Wildenstein to two years in prison. A verdict is expected on January 12th. 

18  A slew of independent visual artists took to social media to accuse various major fashion brands of using their work without permission or payment.

In July, artist Tuesday Bassen made an Instagram post accusing Zara of stealing her designs for use as pins and patches. Galvanized by the public accusation, over 40 artists and designers made similar claims against Zara. Though Bassen’s post was perhaps the most prominent case of an artist accusing a big fashion company of copyright infringement, it was hardly the only one. In October, L.A.-based illustrator Lili Chin sued mega-retailer Kohl’s and two clothing manufacturers over t-shirts and socks the artist said ripped off her drawings. Some hope that through social media and lawsuits, repeat offenders will be tarnished in a way that makes them think twice before they take another artist’s work, or will be motivated to institute robust systems to prevent such cases from happening again. But accusations of plagiarism show no signs of slowing.

19  Egyptian archaeologists discovered a 7,000-year-old ancient city along the Nile River.

The Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities announced in November that it had discovered archeological evidence of an ancient Egyptian city in the southern province of Sohag. They believe the site dates back to 5316 B.C.E. Located a quarter mile from the Temple of Seti I in Abydos, the city may have been inhabited by authorities and tomb builders. So far, archaeologists have uncovered a burial site and building remains, as well as tools and fragments of pottery. The large size of the 15 graves that were found suggests they may have belonged to individuals of nobility. Professor Chris Eyre, an Egyptologist based at the University of Liverpool, told the BBC that the city may have been “the capital at the very beginning of Egyptian history.” Located in the same province as the ancient city of Luxor, a prominent tourist attraction, this newly unearthed city comes at an opportune time, as Egypt aims to boost a tourism industry still reeling from the decline in visitors caused by the country’s 2011 revolution.

20  A public outcry from the art world saved the Art History A-level for British high school students, though fundamental inequities in the exam’s distribution remain.

The campaign to save the A-level began in October, shortly after the last exam board to offer Art History to British students, AQA, announced it would discontinue the subject beginning in 2018. Though AQA cited staffing concerns, grading complexity, and a lack in demand for the test, many blamed the policies of former conservative education secretary Michael Gove for targeting “soft” subjects, though he denied animus towards art history. Regardless, a public campaign waged by prominent artists and arts professionals seemingly succeeded when, in December, another exam board announced it would begin offering the subject. Missing in the debate was a reckoning with the fact that the A-level in art history is one of the most exclusive courses in all of England—it is studied overwhelmingly by the elite, with roughly 76% of students studying for the art history A-level attending private school. Preventing the end of the art history A-level is an achievement. However, what is also needed is a discussion of who is privileged enough to be offered the test, as well as a challenge to the political ideology that allows for such broad inequity in education. 

Artsy Editors

Cover image: Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.