Sotheby’s Refuses to Disclose Executive Bonuses

Sotheby’s auction house is refusing to disclose to government regulators how much its executives receive in bonuses.  They defend the refusal by noting that if Christie’s (which as a private corporation does not have to disclose the same information) were to learn the bonuses, they could lure away these executives.  Any follower of the art trade will hardly be surprised by the hesitancy to disclose this information, but Jeremy Telman at the Contracts Prof blog outlines pokes three holes in Sotheby’s argument:

1. Sotheby’s and Christie’s are undoubtedly at the top of the heap in the art dealing industry.  Based on my circle of acquaintances, which includes many unemployed or underemployed artists, art curators and art experts, it seems likely to me that Sotheby’s and Christie’s benefit from being in a buyer’s market when it comes to hiring executives.  If both companies under-compensated their executives, where would those executives go?  And if they left, so what?  Couldn’t Sotheby’s and Christie’s easily find highly competent replacements who would work on paint fumes just for the honor of getting those great auction houses on their resumes?
2. But even if I’m wrong about that, if Christie’s were really interested in luring executives away from Sotheby’s, couldn’t they just ask the executives about what sort of compensation package it would take to motivate them to move?  Is there a number one rule of Sotheby’s Club that you don’t talk about Sotheby’s Club?
3. In any case, didn’t Sotheby’s waive its right to whine about the hassles of disclosure when it went public?

Daniel Wakin, Sotheby’s Keeps Its Executive Bonus Plan Under Wraps – ArtsBeat Blog – NYTimes.com.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

The Symes Auction

Robin Symes, the antiquities dealer with a checkered past will have remnants of his art collection sold at auction at Bonham’s in Bath.  The sale is being organized by liquidators of Symes’ estate.  Symes was a successful dealer in antiquities, but also played a role in the trade in illicit antiquities.  He was featured prominently in the network of dealers which sold works handled by Giacomo Medici, and the Getty.  The catalog describes the sale as the “Robin Symes Collection”.  It includes the following “the items are being sold by the liquidators who make no warranty as to title, but have been given no reason to believe good title cannot be passed.”  Not exactly a ringing endorsement for the history of these items.  As Francesco Rutelli told the participants at the ARCA Conference in Italy this summer:  just because one can buy these items, doesn’t mean one should buy these items. 

Colin Gleadell, Art Sales:  the last remains of a scandal [The Telegraph, Sep. 28, 2009]

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Lost Work Discovered

Ludovico Mazzolino lost masterpiece:  Lost Renaissance masterpiece discovered after 60 yearsThis work, Madonna and Child with St. Joseph, by Ludovico Mazzolino has been rediscovered after being left in storage for nearly 60 years.  A photograph of the work was sent to an auctioneer, who identified it as the work of Mazzolino.  It seems this work is genuine, and has a solid history.  Guy Schwinge, an auctioneer at Duke’s of Dorchester said:

“With the help of the National Gallery we have been able to identify that it was last sold at public auction three years before Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo.

The seller is a pensioner from Cheltenham, who put the work into storage in 1950.  He received it from his great grandmother who bought it in Italy in 1862, and it had been sold at auction in London in 1812 for only £20.  




Lost Renaissance Work Discovered [BBC News, Sep. 21, 2009].  

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Sotheby’s Accused of Undisclosed Conflict of Interest . . . Again

HickspeaceablekingdomI see via the Wills, T & E blog that Sotheby’s has been accused of an undisclosed conflict of interest by Halsey Minor, the founder of CNET.  The auction house allegedly did not disclose all the information it should have when it sold this work, The Peaceable Kingdom with the Leopard of Serenity, Edward Hicks (c. 1846-48).  Halsey bought the work at a Sotheby’s auction last year for $9.6 million.

Lee Rosenbaum and Donn Zaretsky  covered the initial suit by Sotheby’s back in 2008.  But now Halsey is claiming he was not informed that Sotheby’s was selling the work to recoup money owed by the previous owner of the painting, and the auction house had an undeclared interest in another work Minor bought, Childe Hassam’s Carriage in Winter.  The dispute arose when Halsey refused to pay for these works and another and Sotheby’s brought suit.  Halsey counter-sued asserting Sotheby’s conflict of interest, while Christie’s has argued it has a proper “security interest” in the works, but denies this rises to an ownership interest which it should have disclosed.

The problem arises because Sotheby’s made itself appear as an impartial advisor, when in reality it was motivated to sell the works to pay off the debts it was owed by previous owners of a couple of these works.  It seems Minor really relied on an employee of Sotheby’s, and she did not reveal the other interests in these works.

As Zaretsky and Rosenbaum pointed out last year, both the New York Times and Bloomberg had revealed that Sotheby’s had an interest in the Hicks work.  Which seemed to hurt his case of course.  But if there was another interest in another work, that could change things.

Matthew Garrahan, Sotheby’s accused of painting conflict, [Financial Times]

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Forgeries of Russian avant-garde

File:Artwork by El Lissitzky 1919.jpgKonstantin Akinsha and Sylvia Hochfield report for ARTnews on the slew of Russian avant-garde paintings which were alleged to be fakes. An exhabition at the Château Museum in Tours, France was slated to exhibit 192 Russian avant-garde paintings was abruptly canceled in March, three days before its opening. Russian avant-garde is the body of modern art which was created roughly between 1890 and 1930. Pictured here is an authentic (I think) lithograph by El Lissitzky, Beat the white with the Red wedge (c. 1919).

It seems there is a slew of these forged works. Natalia Kournikova of the Kournikova Gallery in Moscow notes in the piece that “we can say that almost every artist whose prices have risen has become the victim of fake makers.” Alla Rosenfeld, curator of the Norton Dodge Collection of Soviet Nonconformist Art at Rutgers University from 1992 to 2006 and former vice president of the Russian art department at Sotheby’s New York says “There are more fakes than genuine pictures”:

Fake icons and “fauxbergé” trinkets have bedeviled the art market for generations, but the escalating demand for Russian art in the last two decades has led to more ingenious abuses. For a while, “Russified” pictures—minor 19th-century European landscapes or portraits doctored to look Russian—flooded galleries and antique dealerships in Moscow and made their way to the West, appearing even at major auctions. But it has been Russian modernism—art from the first three decades of the 20th century—that has attracted the most Western collectors and consequently the most forgeries.

Hundreds of works have appeared in recent years at auction houses and in galleries all over Europe, from Munich to Madrid. These works have very sketchy provenances in which certain assertions are repeated again and again: the works are said to have come from hitherto unknown private collections or to have been smuggled to Israel by immigrants in the ’70s or to have been deaccessioned by provincial museums in the former Soviet republics—although this practice was strictly forbidden—or to have been confiscated and hidden for a half century by the former KGB (the secret police), although experts say there is not a single documented case of avant-garde works emerging from KGB vaults.

The means with which these forged works are given clean histories are familiar: publication in academic works or exhibition catalogs; previous owners who have suddenly disappeared or are unavailable to corroborate their story; questionable certification by Russian art historians, and a general lack of sufficient documentation. Again, it appears as if a segment of the art trade continues to skirt the rules. As I’ve argued elsewhere, we need a renewed emphasis on the means by which buyers of art acquire good faith status.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Stolen Antiquities Recovered With the Help of the Art Loss Register

The Art Loss Register—though not a cure-all for what ails the antiquities trade—is an invaluable tool for the recovery of stolen objects so long as they have been documented and reported.  I have received a couple of press releases from the ALR highlighting recent recoveries of antiquities.  Though it cannot help aid the recovery of antiquities which have never been documented, it can help in the recovery of stolen antiquities which have been documented and reported missing, underscoring the need I think for museums and nations of origin to do a better job documenting and reporting the stores of objects which they currently have.  A couple recent seizures by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) highlight this.

Yesterday ICE announced a wall panel fresco which had been stolen in 1997 was recovered.  I found the history of the site interesting:

The panel, rectangular with a white background depicting a female minister, white wash on plaster with a modern wooden frame, was previously located at the excavation office in Pompeii and was reported stolen with five other fresco panels on June 26, 1997.

The investigation revealed that, between 1903 and 1904, the Italian government authorized a farmer, Giuseppe De Martino, to restore his farmhouse, which was located on an archeological site in Boscoreale, province of Naples. During the restoration, six important frescos, originating from Pompeii were found.

On July 12, 1957, the Government of Italy purchased the frescos. On June 26, 1997, after the completion of work to the excavation site, the Italian government observed that the six frescos were missing and subsequently reported the theft.

 This follows soon after the recovery of seven Egyptian antiquities which had been stolen from the Bijbels Museum in Amsterdam in 2007:

The investigation received significant help from the Art Loss Register (ALR) of New York, an organization that maintains a database of stolen works of art. The ALR discovered the artifacts at the Manhattan auction house, which turned the artifacts over to the Register and ICE agents.

One of the pieces recovered is a 7-inch-high depiction of a mummy with arms folded over the chest and hoes in each hand. It dates to between 1307 and 1070 B.C. The other recovered artifacts were an bronze figure of Imhotep, artchitect of the first pyramid, and one of Hapokrates, and an Egyptian painted Wood Osiris, all dating as far back as 712 B.C.

“The recovery of these artifacts sends a strong message to thieves that the market to sell stolen antiquities in the United States is freezing up.” said Peter J. Smith, special agent in charge of the ICE Office of Investigations in New York. “ICE is committed to working closely with foreign governments and organizations like the ALR to recover priceless works of art and antiquities so they can be returned to their rightful owners.”

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A Pisarro Hidden for 70 Years to be Auctioned

Camille Pissarro’s Le Quai Malaquais, Printemps (pictured), previously discussed here, recently recovered from a Zurich bank vault will go on sale later this month according to Catherine Hickley for Bloomberg:

 Gisela Bermann-Fischer waited almost 70 years to get back a painting by Camille Pissarro stolen from her family’s home in Vienna by the Gestapo in 1938. 

She recovered “Le Quai Malaquais, Printemps” after a quest that pitched her into a battle of lawyers’ letters with Bruno Lohse, a Nazi art dealer appointed by Hermann Goering to loot treasures in occupied France, and finally led to a Zurich bank vault, where the picture was stashed in a safe. Prosecutors sealed the safe as part of a continuing three-nation probe into associates of Lohse suspected of extortion and money-laundering. 

Now 80, Bermann-Fischer will auction the 1903 painting at Christie’s International’s sale of impressionist and modern art in London on June 23. Its value is estimated at between 900,000 pounds ($1.45 million) and 1.5 million pounds. Bermann-Fischer says it cost her at least 500,000 Swiss francs ($466,000) to recover the Pissarro, mainly in lawyers’ fees. At no point during her quest could she be sure of getting the artwork back.

One of the intriguing parts of the story was the brief resurfacing of the work in 1984:

“I don’t think we’ll ever find out from where to where the painting was transported over the years,” Bermann-Fischer said. “It truly was hidden. I think the exhibition at l’Hermitage Lausanne in 1984 was a test run, to see whether the original owners or any heirs were still on the lookout for the paintings and would make a claim.”

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com