Art Of The Steal

 
Art of the steal.jpg

by Asher Edelman

This month, State of the Art offers a tasting menu of art frauds and scams. The business of art is a nest for hatching collusion and a welcoming home to ignorance. Just which is in play is often hard to discern, even for the discerning. These morsels are all true, although names have been changed to protect the perfidious – none of whom have been incarcerated or even indicted. They are still roaming the streets, wreaking havoc on galleries, auction houses, financial institutions and collectors.

So, presented for your edification: a three-course meal of recent cases. Dear reader, since the justice system doesn’t do it, you get to decide the guilt, innocence or ignorance of the accused.

Start with a certain fraudster—let’s call him Karamazov—who is desperate to bid for a valuable painting at auction. Difficulty being, said clever soul has neither the funds nor sufficient liquidity to get a paddle (i.e. the right to bid). Undeterred, Karamazov boldly declares that he has a “high seven figure balance” in his bank account. Included in the declaration are the coordinates of a major bank and the name of a minor officer: Let’s call him Dopey. The auction house sends a request for confirmation and Dopey responds quickly and in writing confirming the “high seven figure” amount. Karmazov bids and wins a major piece of art—trouble being, he has no money to pay for it. A collection process ensues. The auction house sues Karmazov who, in turn, sues the auction house for fraud, a common ploy to delay a hopeless defense. Dopey, having left the bank, is questioned about his role. He replies that he does not quite understand accounting though he confirms he did, indeed, certify the balance to the auction house. Did Dopey think high seven figures included the digits after the decimal point?

Collusion or ignorance?

An Arab group purchases $40 million worth of paintings for a prestigious Middle Eastern institution through an agent we’ll call Romeo. Romeo says his client is royal and is believed, even though he, Romeo, was previously, if not widely, known as a purveyor of fake Jackson Pollacks. Romeo forwards the invoices to the local institution for payment, but no money comes. The seller’s agent asks both the purchaser and his agent to pay up but gets no response until certain mysterious “experts” communicate to the seller’s agent by email, though they imply they are in the same city where the sale was executed, and the artworks reside. They also claim they have somehow examined the goods, though that’s not true. The “experts” haven’t seen the paintings, have expressed no interest in meeting the sellers or their agent, and either don’t have a telephone or won’t disclose their number.

Based on the inspection that never happened, the “inspectors” then abruptly demand a forty percent reduction in the price of the art. The sellers’ agent brings suit and begins asking questions. It emerges that this group has done this before, promising to buy art and other items, soliciting invoices and presenting them to local institutional buyers, who happen to be controlled by the fraudsters. Then, the scammers reach out to the sellers, demanding discounts based on the opinions of invisible “experts,” and when successful, pocketing the difference.

Many sellers agree as the items have already been marked up enough to cover the discount. But our seller did not agree, and instead sued the buyer and agent in federal court. The buyer and Romeo defaulted by first appearing, but then failing to appear in court. Romeo, oh Romeo, are you a colluder or an ignoramus?

Over the course of five years, an art trader we’ll call Lolo purchases art through a defunct out-of-state company which, at one time, at least, apparently had a resale certificate. So the purchases, from dealers and auction houses, are made without New York sales tax being charged. Lolo has yet to be caught; probably a matter of time.

But are the dealers and auctioneers in cahoots? Or just see-no-evil innocents?

In 2016, Tolstoy seeks to refinance a work of art, claiming to have purchased it from Minskov two years earlier, and producing an invoice. He gets funds from a finance company and then, in 2017, Minskov claims co-ownership and places a lien on the work. The financier investigates and discovers that Minskov always co-owned the art and that the copy of the invoice given for financing had been tampered with, predated to 2014—by Minskov.

Is Minskov a perp or a dupe?

All of these art world players are still walking the streets, along with hundreds of others, many known to the art community and the authorities. Though there exist registers of stolen and Nazi-confiscated art, money launderers, forgers, and other forms of art crime, there is none for for these most insidious criminals and their collaborators. Law enforcement’s hands are mostly tied by lack of funds to pursue art crime. Legislation and regulation are severely wanting.  Romeo, wherefore art thou?  Just look over your shoulder.

 

 

A Toast To Moss

 

by Asher Edelman

In his new book Please Do Not Touch (and Other Things You Could Not Do at Moss the Design Store that Changed Design), its namesake and co-owner Murray Moss quotes the Czech architect and designer Bořek Šípek: “The only real justification for the designer to create another chair is if he treats it like a work of art and uses it to express or interrupt the culture of the moment.”

A similar notion started Murray’s successful quest to merge “design” into “art” at MOSS, the design store. It was 1990. The rest is history.

MOSS literally rubbed shoulders with Art and the Art Audience. Murray opened his “gallery” in SoHo between Metro Pictures and Pace. Their clients would see his “Art” in the windows of MOSS. It was the design store that changed design and how it was labeled. Ever since, great design has ceased to be a stepchild: it’s become great art.

Murray and his partner, Franklin Getchell, have been my close friends for almost 40 years. All I have to say about this extraordinary book and these wonderful “boys” (yes, still boys) is highly colored by that reality. Sadly, there is, within, a chapter about me. I think it is best you skip that chapter. Those pages are grossly exaggerated fiction, not worthy of the authors. So high is that chapter’s unreality that I have commissioned them to write my obituary with the same fictional license. In summary, DO NOT READ the chapter.

Most of you know about MOSS, the design theater, though nominally a store, a university of taste, a fantasy land always in action, serving up tasty morsels for grown-ups. I need not tell you more about MOSS, nor about Murray and Franklin, nor is this a book review. Rather, it’s a small collection of vignettes, and there are infinitely more to be discovered reading Please Do Not Touch.

MOSS, the acknowledged premium curated design store of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, lighted upon a novel idea: a wedding registry—complete with a proper registrar to tend to the couples. Murray, who had no interest in decanters, was persuaded by the registrar to stock decanters for the lovebirds’ needs. And MOSS became a “decanter center.” Sadly, it seemed a habit of newlyweds to return most of the decanters and most everything else they registered for, too. So the boys invented a new registry model: automatic prereturns of all “registry account” orders and a credit to the bride and groom. The happy couple was informed of the purchase, the purchaser, the credit to the account, and the nature of the “prereturned” gift. Our lovebirds could then choose at leisure items they really liked rather than the ones they registered for. A thank-you note for the original gifts could be sent and MOSS did not have to carry returned inventory, as it never filled any registry orders. This is one of a number of brilliant business decisions made by Murray and Franklin, which resulted in its all-registry business vaporating instantly.

All design stores are focused on weddings—seriously a moment of excess spending for the lovebirds’ nests. MOSS followed in the footsteps of wedding providers with some quite advanced products. A first-rate seller, Gay Marriage Finger Puppets, consisting of two brides, two grooms and a minister, became a most sought-after accessory. Speaking of weddings—another conflict—I am to officiate at the wedding of these two special people. They have refused my offer of a Latin ceremony and insist on English—no costumes either.

Which does not mean they lack a sense of humor. Did you know the MOSS logo was derived from the Oscar Mayer hot dog logo?

Then, there’s the absurdity inspired by the opening of MOSS in 2006 in Los Angeles. “I don’t know exactly what form of English they’re speaking out there,” Franklin writes, “but it sure isn’t the same as mine. Dude, it’s not that there’s anything wrong with one-syllable words…there are some terrific one-syllable words and some great one-syllable word sentences. Fries with that? Can you spot me? And, of course, Have a nice day.” Or, as Franklin also says, “Life in L.A. Like death, only shorter.”

Please Do Not Touch is full of similar fun and absurdities—a double self-inflicted spoof—but, most of all, it’s the story of Murray and Franklin, my friends, and their design store that changed the face of design.

 

Caveat Emptor

 

by Asher Edelman

Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci, master of the 15th and early 16th centuries, recently resurfaced as a 21st-century bonanza. Salvator Mundi, a secondary early Renaissance painting by the master, repainted extensively in our century, sold for $450 million to a buyer bidding for the quaint little fortress of Abu Dhabi. It’s to be put on permanent display in its not-so-quaint (nor little) Western art museum, the Louvre Abu Dhabi, in perhaps the most stupendous example of ego-driven activity in the history of the art market. More than art, this new Louvre displays most of all the need to pay more than one’s neighbor for freshly minted contemporary art.

Mundi, contemporary by virtue of its restoration, has been sufficiently repainted to be classified a 21st-century masterpiece. Or perhaps its status derives from the price paid by a secondary Gulf state for a secondary rendition of Jesus “attributed” to the greatest artist of his time (and the greatest restorers of ours).

Now, that’s a market!

Thus, the reigning top echelon of the art world, the ego-driven sector where the 1 percent (sovereign division) and the 1 percent (wealthy division) raise their hands to show their mine’s-bigger importance, becomes the laughingstock of serious art connoisseurs. Not only because of the excessive pricing, but also because much of what they buy isn’t even first-rate. Well, okay, it’s not first-rate art but it is first-rate marketing.

Wealth is not typically a product of stupidity, nor do its possessors wish to be viewed as fools. But when mockery reveals yesterday’s ego-driven one-upmanship as today’s buffoonery, some of the less-stupid actors start getting the point.

The ego market is the art market we read about. Clearly, it’s been going up, but in the last few years the broader art market has been going down and suffering a secret liquidity crisis. The buffoon-driven market is sure to fall, too, and soon.

The sources of capital for high profile purchases are drying up. Mega-wealthy Chinese collectors openly admit they will no longer raise their paddles at Western art auctions. Money export controls and fear of government retribution have made public displays of ostentation serious no-nos in the People’s Republic.

Russian sanctions current and future, a stumbling economy, and increased scrutiny of money laundering have all but ended high-profile Russky art buying, too. In fact, Roman Abramovich, the biggest Russian buyer of Western contemporary art, and considered a close collaborator of Putin, has checked out of the market along with most of his oligarch comrades.

The professional speculators pulling the strings of the buffoons are savvy. They lead the market—they don’t follow it. The Warhol-Basquiat-Wool-Prince cabal have been selling on balance for quite a while, counting on dupes outnumbering sellers to ensure their continued profits. Unlike auction houses, dealers have had neither the liquidity nor the bad sense to allow participation in the battles of the buffoons—and they will not start now.

Then, there are the genuine collectors. One of our wealthiest hedge fund managers, who is also a great collector, committed to art but savvy as to markets, has been a constant seller in the last year or so. If I were to bet on anyone being right on the market, he’s my man.

The top of the art market is due for a serious correction, and a drying up of liquidity not dissimilar to its 1989–1995 crisis, when art prices grew by more than 150 percent before sharply declining, setting off several years of stagnation that left dealers and auction houses staggering. The market as a whole has been down for at least three years. One missing bidder saying no might move the market to calamity. A night of guarantees hit can turn the whole upper market on its bottom.

Factor buy-ins at auction and the poor performance of private secondary market sales into the art indexes, and one sees a continuous downward trend. But it will take a market crisis of duration to bring the markets back. Over 50 percent of the world’s galleries are said to lose money. The gallery-closing velocity increases markedly month by month. And the real storm has yet to begin.

Trump and his coterie have no interest in art. Donald prefers the big, fake Renoir hanging in his apartment to the real deal in the Art Institute of Chicago. Cuts in federal spending for the arts, the adverse effects of the new tax bill and the plain old bad taste of our leader and his gnomes have already begun to injure the art world.

Trump is in good company, at least. Crooks, fraudsters, fakers, defaulters, forgers, and criminals abound. To quote Judge Charles Edward Ramos of the N.Y. State Supreme Court in the case of Sotheby’s v. Shagalov: “I have never seen an industry more ripe with fraud and misconduct than the art business. To say there’s such a thing as artistic ethics is an oxymoron. Most of the cases I’ve had involving art dealers involve fraud outright, just plain old fraud.”

At my art advisory company, we receive more and more inquiries as to the efficacy of transactions and the honesty and ethics of dealers. The feds and local constabulary are onto the bad art crowd. The media is hungry for these stories. This is not a short-term plus for the market but, instead, a long-term cleanup that will bring transparency and disclosure and a rebirth for markets, collectors, connoisseurs and art lovers.

UPDATE:  

The end buyer of Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, whose regime was criticized for the purchase, quickly traded the work to Mohammed Bin Zayed, defacto ruler of the United Arab Emirates, for a large yacht.

A great idea for some of the other players in the “ego-market”. Just think: one can trade art for large houses in the Hamptons, Aspen, Palm Beach or even a simple apartment on the 100th floor of a Fifty-seventh Street condominium. Finally, a rational reason for buying modest works of art at immodest prices. Does this foretell the next bull market? Probably not!

How did this remarkable event transpire? As reported by Artwatch, U.K.’s Michael Daley and the Daily Mail, it seems that both Mohammed Bin Salman and Mohammed Bin Zayed were concerned that their enemy, the Qatar royal family, headed by Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, would be the buyer of Salvator Mundi. As the rulers of Saudi and Abu Dhabi did not discuss the matter between themselves, they ended up bidding against each other rather than against Qatar.

The Al Thanis had actually been offered the painting a year earlier for 80 million but decided against purchasing the work. Could the reason have been the extent of the restoration?  

The Saudis and Abu Dhabis, while trying to enforce sanctions imposed on Qatar, finally caused Salvator Mundi to be sold for 450 million. It’s said that “wealth is not typically a product of stupidity…” Is this the exception that proves the rule?